When the world’s great orchestras go on tour, they want to showcase themselves with the world’s great masterworks. In April, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons brought Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. On Tuesday night, thanks again to Washington Performing Arts, it was the turn of the Royal Concertgebouw, once voted the greatest orchestra in the world, which Jansons used to lead until he opted to throw in his lot entirely with the Bavarians; it was left to guest conductor Semyon Bychkov to offer up his account. It’s nice for home audiences to have a standard of comparison: Christoph Eschenbach led the National Symphony Orchestra in the Mahler Fifth in 2015, and Marin Alsop led it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this spring. It must be getting into our ears by now.
And this is the problem that every great orchestra faces: If fewer and fewer soloists, fewer and fewer pieces are accepted as guaranteed ticket sellers, it becomes harder and harder to make your mark. Admittedly, the Concertgebouw has something of a trademark on Mahler, since Willem Mengelberg, its conductor for 50 years and a friend of the composer’s, regularly rolled out his newest pieces on the Concertgebouw stage. The richness and depth of this particular orchestra still fits well with this rich, melodious, nostalgic music, which offers so much meat for emotional interpretation, coupled with the satisfaction of hearing an orchestra in full cry. A Mahler symphony is generally an event, and the Concertgebouw made it one Tuesday night. It just had to work a little harder to get there.
Bychkov had a very clear idea about what he wanted to do with the piece — but not, thankfully, one that smacked of a “concept,” despite the unusual and arresting opening. The trumpet call that usually blares out proudly at the start of the piece was here a questioning probe into the void, quiet and hesitant (quite a feat for a trumpet player), gradually crescendoing but needing to be joined by the full strength of the orchestra before coming into its own. And the whole first movement that followed was taken at a pace so slow it was downright lugubrious, sometimes verging on the bathetic.
Yet it never dragged; nor did it, in fact, over-emote. We’ve come, particularly in Mahler, to expect conductors to gesticulate and frenzy and sweat, a la Leonard Bernstein, when tackling monumental works. Bychkov is a welcome throwback to a more decorous podium style, gaining great effects, and great fortissimi, with a relative economy of movement. Not that he’s a restrained musician; rather, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. His Mahler was characterized by narrative clarity, laying out its intentions and carrying through on them deftly in a long dramatic arc rather than the episodic bursts that the score often invites. The famous fourth movement, the Adagietto, which is normally where conductors linger, was fleet and flowing, and led naturally into the final movement, which steadily, inexorably built up, with coiled strength — until, at the very end, it remembered the opening theme and reverted to somber quiet. It was a strong performance from a conductor who, having gotten his start in the States (he is a U.S. citizen, though living in Europe), ought to appear more regularly with our big orchestras. He’s certainly the equal of Daniele Gatti, who has just taken over as the Concertgebouw’s chief conductor.
The performance was also nicely balanced by the opening work on the program, “Theatrum bestiarum (a theatrical bestiary)” by the German composer Detlev Glanert, who is the orchestra’s official “house composer,” a 10-year appointment extending through 2021. He certainly writes well for full orchestra: His “bestiary” luxuriated in the orchestra’s luxuriant sounds and the contrast between them — cellos and bells singing over a quiet lake of strings; blasts of organ, played by one person, juxtaposed with hushed chords from all the other players onstage. It was refreshing enough, and appealing enough, to win warm praise from Tuesday’s audience.
The question remains whether adding a new piece to a program is enough to ameliorate the prevailing risk of wearing out the classical-music audience with modest variations on the same themes — or the same pieces.