Nathalie Stutzmann is a performer-turned-conductor: one of a veritable bevy of artists who have expanded their reach by mounting the podium. What she wants when she gets there has very little to do with the standards by which the classical music world is accustomed to measuring conductors. She is not about imposing her will, or about firm beats: It's about expressivity in the music, singing lines, being carried along.
All of this makes her well suited for the National Symphony Orchestra — or an absolutely terrible match, take your pick. Well suited because the orchestra has just come off several years with a music director who shares a number of these traits with Stutzmann: Christoph Eschenbach is also a performer-turned-conductor with an unconventional approach and a desire to lose himself in the music around him. A terrible match because this orchestra, having gone along without much technical rigor at the helm for some time, needs a firm, dare I say, old-school hand to bring it into line.
It didn't find one in Stutzmann, who on Thursday night led a loving, meandering program that featured a lot of lyrical lines and a lot of mushy sound from the instruments around her. There were few hard angles in her conducting: Even the entrances were pillowy, as if everyone were feeling their way into the chords. The opening piece was the overture from Lalo's seldom-performed opera "Le Roi d'Ys," which mingles French tonal opulence with a Wagnerian sensibility (and even an outright nod to "Meistersinger" at one point), and gave David Hardy, the principal cellist, a juicy solo as a kind of spine running down the center of the melodic fog.
The programming certainly seemed to be trying to send a signal that Stutzmann is ready to take her place among her peers in the core classical repertory, even if her work didn't quite bear it out. The second piece was Brahms's violin concerto, with Arabella Steinbacher as the poised soloist, wearing a dynamic red gown that will doubtless lead detractors to the charges of selling out that seem to emerge whenever an attractive young woman dresses strikingly on the (classical) concert stage. Steinbacher, of course, did not sell out in the slightest, bringing firm assurance to her reading, though I would have welcomed more clarity in some of the rapid passages. She had to do a bit of contending, though, with the impressionistic work from the orchestra, including a willful bit of rubato — deliberate slowing-down of the tempo — from the conductor in the lively and familiar finale. She was warmly received by an audience who would have been happy to hear an encore, but she didn't take the opportunity.
Dvorak's sunny Seventh Symphony proved perhaps the best fit for Stutzmann's warmth and lyrical bent; the first movement, in particular, sailed along on sunshine alone. But Stutzmann's weakness proved one Eschenbach often had, as well: When you lose yourself in the moment, you can also lose sight of the overall architecture, and the piece feels longer than it does in a more rigorous reading.
The program repeats Friday at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m.