Sometimes you don’t understand the meaning of a section of your life until it’s over. Here’s one appeal of music: It allows us to experience something in real time, and then relive it each time we hear it. This week at the National Symphony Orchestra, an oft-relived piece is marking the end of a chapter: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra played Thursday and will play again Friday and Saturday, officially marks the end of the seven-year tenure of Christoph Eschenbach as music director of the NSO and the Kennedy Center.
He didn't go quietly. Indeed, He is leaving us with the best of him: a performance that was quirky and rambling, by turns dragged out and insightful, with a kind of emotional rawness and ferocity, in the best sense. Take that, he seemed to say, and now figure out what you thought of me.
Eschenbach has certainly brought things to this orchestra. The NSO hired 20 players on his watch, making particular improvements in the winds and brass. It began touring internationally after a long hiatus. And it arguably found some of the emotion that fueled it under its beloved late music director Mstislav Rostropovich, who was not, in technical terms, the conductor Eschenbach is.
The program opened with a work dedicated to Eschenbach, Bright Sheng's "Zodiac Tales," written in 2010 and fully revised for this week's performances, an evocative symphonic suite depicting elements of the Chinese zodiac in East-meets-West music: a slithery pentatonic serpent scaly with percussion, in "The Elephant-
Eating Serpent," or the principal cellist David Hardy's instrument channeling an erhu in an elegiac movement called "The Tomb of the Soulful Dog," which brought a kind of Mahlerian emotion, tinged nostalgia and folk song, into a stylized Chinese corset.
Eschenbach isn't the only musician departing after these performances; five members of the orchestra, with a total of 210 years of service, were honored after intermission with the ritual annual conferring of photographs and crystal paperweights, including the violinist William Haroutounian, who has been playing in the orchestra for 54 years.
They had quite a piece to go out in. The Beethoven Ninth, a favorite gesture of farewell in the orchestra world, is one of the biggest musical statements you can make. Eschenbach kept the intensity without the ponderousness — indeed, his tempos were positively fleet in the second movement, in which he struck the downbeats and trusted the orchestra to fill in the rest. An Eschenbach performance, like it or not, often makes you aware of parts of the piece you'd forgotten about, or never quite heard that way before: inner voices, or, here, the often-overshadowed third movement. Sometimes this makes for a long and meandering journey, but on Thursday his pacing seemed just right for this long piece, flowing seamlessly into the moment when the bass Soloman Howard rose and declaimed "O Freunde" in a voice as rich and stirring as the music demands.
Eschenbach had a fine quartet of soloists — Joseph Kaiser, J’nai Bridges and Leah Crocetto were the other three — and a fine chorus in the Choral Arts Society, which itself had a raw, lusty quality. Singing their whole section from memory, slightly swaying to the music, they joined soloists and orchestra in a kind of wild ecstatic bacchanal while Eschenbach danced and swept his arms on the podium.
Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt" — your magic reunites things that today's dictates try to keep apart, run the words of Schiller's poem. There isn't always unity in music, but Thursday night there was, in the roar of applause that flooded into the tingling silence when the piece was over.