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Inside the NSO’s grand return to Russia

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach begins the National Symphony Orchestra concert in St. Petersburg with a full house. (Scott Suchman/National Symphony Orchestra)

The weather in Moscow at the end of March was as changeable as a movement of music.

At one moment, a sky angry with clouds spat icy rain across the facade of the Ritz-Carlton on the main drag of Tverskaya Street, where the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra stayed on their quick tour in Russia (some Muscovites murmured at the extravagance). At another moment, a cold, hard sun cast brilliant light over the fairy-tale onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square — but the next time you came out, you’d find an inch of snow frosting the parked cars and causing yet another obstacle to Moscow’s permanently gridlocked traffic — traffic so heavy it took one contingent of players 2½ hours to get into town from the airport.

The seeds for the NSO'S tour in Russia were sown two years ago with an invitation from the Rostropovich International Festival, which is the only institution in Moscow that brings in major foreign orchestras and which had never invited an American one. Despite the musicians' affection for Mstislav "Slava" Rostropovich, the cellist-turned-conductor who led them for 17 seasons and brought them on their last Russian tours in 1990 and 1993, not all of them were looking forward to traveling overseas for only five days to a country with which relations are so strained that the NSO issued everybody temporary smartphones and email addresses to guard against hackers. And it was going to be hard to live up to memories of those long-ago Russian tours, when Rostropovich and the orchestra had a heroes' welcome.

So it was, for some, a pleasant surprise that the tour turned out to be such a positive experience, with each concert better than the last.

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The “Washington National Symphony Orchestra,” as it was billed on tickets and programs, played its first two concerts in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where the portraits of composers that line the walls were offset by a huge photo of Rostropovich hanging over the stage. It was a lot for the cello soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, to live up to; Rostropovich gave the world premiere of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, which she and the NSO were performing, in this hall in 1959. “Aren’t you afraid to play this concerto for the Russians?” a Russian journalist asked her. Weilerstein, in fact, played the concerto for Rostropovich himself as a student; when she was done, he asked whether her family was happy, because she seemed to suffer so much (Weilerstein is still known for her emotive, hyperexpressive delivery). “If I could play a Shostakovich piece written for Rostropovich with Rostropovich in my face,” Weilerstein said to me, “I think I can play it for a Russian audience.”

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After the dry acoustics of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, some in the orchestra found that a new space can be too much of a good thing; it took some adjusting to get used to being able to hear everything so clearly on stage. The Russian audience had things to get used to, as well, in terms of American orchestral conventions. Why do the players sit onstage while the audience comes in, rather than making a proper entrance? And why does the concert come to a screeching halt after the first piece so the stage can be reset for the cello concerto, rather than having the cellist’s podium in place before the show starts? To the Russians, it seemed sloppy.

I’ve often described Christoph Eschenbach as an emotional conductor, but it’s a specific kind of emotion, one that revels in small details and nuances: a cerebral emotional approach. This may have led to a disconnect, on the first night especially, between an audience primed for the triumphant return of an American orchestra and a conductor eager to show off a program for aficionados. Eschenbach opened both programs in Moscow with the same piece, Tobias Picker’s “Old and Lost Rivers,” which spotlit the difference in expectations: It’s beautiful and dreamy and evocative, but it’s not exactly a rip-roaring opening number, and it let the sense of occasion, and the energy in the room, ebb.

Eschenbach loves quirky, offbeat soloists, and Weilerstein, a poster girl for people who believe that classical music is a vehicle for raw emotion, is a good example. She may have toned down her approach to this concerto after Rostropovich’s long-ago advice, but it wasn’t apparent from her exaggerated pauses and swoops and slurs of dynamic intensity. In a way, Weilerstein and Eschenbach brought out each other’s self-indulgences; after she played the Elgar concerto on the second night, Eschenbach’s performance of the Shostakovich 8th Symphony seemed engaged in a similar kind of emotional stop-and-start movement, holding out pauses, catapulting to big emotional climaxes. Still, the symphony had many powerful moments and connected more with the audience than the Schubert 9th appeared to the night before. Some wiped away tears, and the applause felt more immediate and more insistent, which it had to be to coax an encore from Eschenbach after this draining music. Sibelius’s graceful, aching “Valse Triste” proved a poignant follow-up.

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For the orchestra's last night in Moscow, the Rostropovich International Festival threw a lavish post-concert reception for the musicians on the top floor of the Ritz, where a rooftop terrace offered a panorama of Red Square and the Kremlin, some of the buildings lit up with strings of lights like a Texas subdivision at Christmastime. Inside, with abundant food and an open bar, Eschenbach chatted with musicians; Weilerstein took a night off from motherhood — she was traveling with her daughter, who celebrated her first birthday the following day — and Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter was in her element as a former orchestra executive. She was last here with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2012. Even Joshua Bell, the star violinist, showed up, since he happened to be staying in the same hotel. The music world is very small.

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The needle-nosed rapid train from Moscow to St. Petersburg takes about four hours, much of which, after the excesses of the previous night, the musicians spent asleep. Getting more than 100 people from place to place — along with the 30 or so NSO patrons who also made the trip — is a mind-bending job. This was the 30th NSO tour led by the Alexandria-based company Classical Movements, which specializes in tours for orchestras and choruses. The two full-time staffers it sent to Russia were fully occupied with travel logistics. What do you do when most of the orchestra’s luggage fails to make a tight plane connection and the authorities insist all the musicians have to come out to the airport, with their passports, to claim their bags? The staffers often worked past midnight to make sure the orchestra never had to know; magically, the missing luggage appeared at the hotel in the wee hours of the morning.

The orchestra’s tour managers had similar challenges getting the instruments and wardrobe trunks transported on such a tight schedule, with myriad unexpected hitches along the way. It was, they said, one of the NSO’s most challenging tours. The Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic didn’t have enough room backstage for all the wardrobe trunks, so some players had to change in the hotel. More prosaically, the hall had a colony of resident inquisitive cats that kept turning up in the orchestra’s trunks and instrument cases. Anyone familiar with cats, and their love of boxes and hiding places, will appreciate the constant vigilance required to keep them out.

St. Petersburg’s hall is a bright, vivid space with no proscenium; the sense that the orchestra is in the room with the listeners gives the music a certain intimacy. It was here that the NSO found the discriminating audience it had been expecting. The sellout crowd came rushing in as soon as the doors opened and listened in attentive silence, barely stirring, much less clapping, between movements. Eschenbach seemed to take inspiration from their intensity. The Elgar concerto came together, its effusions standing on firmer ground, and the Shostakovich, even with its slow tempos, flowed almost swiftly by. Here was a powerful program for aficionados, and a roomful of aficionados who got it, and after the searing might of the Shostakovich, with its anguished, bitter music, the ovation was heartfelt and prolonged. When Eschenbach finally granted the “Valse Triste” encore, he and the orchestra seemed to breathe as one, the players responding to every motion of his hands with a synchronicity that was as close to perfection as musicians are going to get. It was the best I’ve ever heard the NSO play, and there was a tangible tug of regret when the last tiny chords were quietly, briefly caressed before the music popped like a bubble and the tour was over.