Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

To the perennial question of how to make new music palatable to supposedly resistant audiences, the National Symphony Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach, in Thursday night’s program, came up with a refreshing answer.

They turned to the composer Lera Auerbach, 41, who was spotlighted at the Kennedy Center in 2009 with an evening of her music on the CrossCurrents festival. At that time, I wrote that she used 18th-century forms and a 19th-century sensibility expressed in a 21st-century vocabulary. And nothing on Thursday’s program, which opened with her music, gave me reason to revise either that judgment or my appreciation.

“Eterniday (Homage to W. A. Mozart)” begins with the sound of tiptoeing from the bass drum, the restrained footfall of something massive, which elicits a silvery trail of notes from the celesta, followed, one at a time, by the five principal strings — violin, cello, viola, second violin and bass — playing achingly nostalgic melodies over a suspended tissue of high string sound. (The piece uses no other instruments.) There’s a tautness to the music, the sound of innocence waiting to be violated, and though it is nothing like Mozart, it evokes a certain quality of Mozart: the sense of ephemeral fragility, of children playing among the ruins.

But lovely music alone, or the intensely Romantic ferment to which it eventually swelled (fulfilling the promise or threat of those opening moments), is not in itself an innovation. The refreshing part was allowing Auerbach to enter into a direct dialogue with Mozart by writing the cadenzas for one of his concertos.

Eschenbach is turning the spotlight onto several NSO players this season. On Thursday, it was Aaron Goldman, the NSO’s principal flute, in Mozart’s second flute concerto, K. 314. When the program was decided, Goldman approached the orchestra with the idea of commissioning new cadenzas. It turned out to be a fabulous idea.

Aaron Goldman, the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal flute, played Mozart’s second flute concerto, K. 314, on Thursday. (Scott Suchman)

A cadenza traditionally functions as a lacuna in the score, during which the orchestra steps aside and lets the soloist show who he is. Goldman, who played with an engagingly shiny tone and light spirit throughout, showed that he was a contemporary person interested in finding his own way of engaging with the canon.

And Auerbach has the sensitivity and smarts to write distinctive music that stands out without clashing, which is the point of the exercise. Her cadenzas lifted Mozart’s themes and gently prodded them into different idioms, refracting their scales through a contemporary prism into different, darkling keys. After the second-movement cadenza, in particular, the return of the Mozart seemed too pat to paper over the immediacy of the vision that had rent it. In the third movement, though, her music played off Mozart’s antic humor, picking up on a little stutter that he had written for the flute and amplifying it so that the flute twice seemed to lose its way before reassuring the ear, with a little lilting wink, that it was only kidding. Auerbach then took Goldman through the same theme bounced up over three octaves, just in case anyone was doubting his control.

The main focus of the evening was supposed to be Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” — Friday night’s program, in fact, will be entirely devoted to the piece, with a “Beyond the Score” presentation about the work replacing the Mozart and Auerbach before the intermission. (The Mozart and Auerbach will return on Saturday night.) I wasn’t sure what Eschenbach would do with this piece — and I found myself surprised by what I found to be one of his most intriguing performances.

I think of Eschenbach as a conductor prone to big gestures and big emotions. What he brought to the “Rite,” though, was a sense of refinement — not something one would think of as necessarily desirable in a piece usually conceived in terms of searing rawness, but in practice quite compelling.

Conducting this fiendishly difficult piece entirely from memory, Eschenbach was more focused and precise than I’ve seen him, and kept everything contained, so that the principal impression was of the beauty of the instrumental timbres; even when the strings were violently slashing their bows in unison, there was a mellowness to the sound. And even in forte passages, the conductor held something in reserve until, finally, unleashing the bass drum and then the orchestra in an explosion in the second half of the work.

I could quibble about balances between brass and strings, but it didn’t seem important against the fact that I had gotten a new impression of a much-played piece. I might not want to hear “Rite” played with this sense of majesty and stateliness all the time, but on Thursday, it made a thought-provoking conclusion to a thoroughly engaging evening.

The program repeats Saturday night; on Friday night, the “Rite of Spring” will be the focus of a “Beyond the Score” presentation followed by a full performance.