The National Symphony Orchestra performing under the direction of music director Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. on September, 2012. (Juana Arias/For the Washington Post)

It’s one of the highest-paid orchestras in the United States. Its name gives the impression that it’s our country’s national orchestra. It’s filled with excellent musicians. So why is the National Symphony Orchestra so lackluster, haunted by the curse of mediocrity?

Now at the start of its 85th season, embarked on yet another search for a new music director, the Kennedy Center’s flagship orchestra is facing the question of what it wants to be, and what it will take to reach the next level that it never quite seems to attain.

There’s a lot you can blame for the NSO’s problems. There’s the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, in which it is hard for the players onstage to hear each other and, consequently, to play together. There’s a lack, for most of its history, of a galvanizing leader with both the commitment and the technical ability to give it a thorough grounding in the nuts and bolts of ensemble playing. And there’s the Kennedy Center itself, which, while it protects the orchestra and its players from some measure of accountability, “hasn’t given [the orchestra] the resources, institutionally, to really go for it” — in the words of the Kennedy Center’s president, Deborah Rutter.

But everyone involved seems to put the blame on someone else rather than take responsibility for fixing it. And each successive music director, each new initiative, represents a small step toward improvement while failing to address the larger issues, keeping the orchestra on a treadmill of perpetual advancement without actually getting anywhere.

Is it sufficient for the NSO simply to be good enough? It’s testing out the kinds of outreach and community initiatives that orchestras are supposed to be doing in the 21st century. It turns in some fine performances on individual nights, even if it sometimes seems that fewer people are buying tickets. What does an orchestra need to be, anyway? The Kennedy Center and the NSO — along with pretty much every orchestra in the United States — are trying to figure that out.

‘That’ll do’

The NSO is a puzzle. It doesn’t lack for money; it doesn’t lack for talent. There have always been some excellent musicians in its ranks, and in recent years, some of the weaker links, players who were rumored to have kept some potential music directors away, have been weeded out. Talk to NSO musicians today and you come away with a sense of optimism. “I think the orchestra, right now, is the best it’s ever been as an orchestra,” says William Foster, a violist with the NSO who served as principal for many years after joining the ensemble in 1968.

Marissa Regni, the principal second violinist, calls it a “family atmosphere.” “People are friendly and engaging and enjoy being around each other,” she says, adding, “It’s an incredibly supportive group of people. . . . I think it’s a great group to play with.”

“I think we’re just a few steps away from achieving the level of any other world top orchestra,” says Abel Pereira, the orchestra’s principal horn, who left a freelance career with some of the top orchestras in Europe — including the Berlin Philharmonic — to join the NSO. Pereira is one of eight new principal players appointed under Christoph Eschenbach, including the principal flute, oboe, trumpet and trombone: a substantial renewal, and a marked improvement.

The National Symphony Orchestra performing under the direction of music director Christoph Eschenbach at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, on September, 2012. (Juana Arias/For the Washington Post)

Yet when you go to an NSO concert, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes, you get very good playing. Other times, you hear unpardonable sloppiness, sections drowning each other out in a soup of sound that you don’t expect from professionals. It’s curious that an orchestra with so much talent is still able and, in some sense even willing, to sound like such a mess.

There are three places to look for the problem — and its solution.

The first and most obvious culprit is the music director. For the first four decades of its existence, from its founding in 1931, the NSO was led by two quirky cellists-turned-so-so-conductors, Hans Kindler and Howard Mitchell. Not until the Hungarian maestro Antal Dorati took over in 1970 did the orchestra have a music director with the technical and musical ability to help bring it to a new level. You could argue that it hasn’t had one since.

Each of the three succeeding music directors has had qualities that his predecessor lacked. The world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich brought passion, commitment and electricity to his concerts, but he lacked solid conducting technique. Leonard Slatkin, his successor, was a skilled technician with a vision for a “National Symphony” concentrating on American music, but he was more interested in performing a wide variety of repertory than in honing excellence. “It’s good enough” or “That’ll do” in rehearsal became bywords for a group that sometimes sounded as if the goal of a performance was simply to get by.

Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich leading the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society in Moscow’s Red Square on Sept. 26, 1993. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Eschenbach marked a return to the European core repertoire, but he also conducts more from passion than technical savvy. And although his tenure has included some highlights — including two major tours, with a third in the offing in 2016 — he hasn’t put forth a real vision for the institution. Eschenbach, who will step down in 2017, is one of the top-paid conductors in the United States, partly because he is the music director of the Kennedy Center as well as the NSO. In practice, that’s translated to a handful of chamber concerts — not exactly the larger collaborative vision one might expect from someone earning $2 million a year.

Yet even the most visionary of music directors can’t transform an institution single-handedly. “What we don’t need is a sense, which I’ve felt maybe in the past too much, that [the next] music director is going to solve everything,” says Foster, the violist.

An unclear vision

A second culprit for the orchestra’s problems may be the complacency of the musicians. It’s a great thing to have a supportive working atmosphere and a secure and well-paid job, thanks to the deep pockets of the Kennedy Center. What the NSO fails to bring across, though, is the kind of knife-edge commitment evident from some of the country’s acknowledged leaders. At the Chicago Symphony, which Rutter used to run, there’s a sense that every player is giving his or her best at every minute. The NSO can convey looseness and a lack of focus. There’s a slight parochialism to the orchestra, with its rah-rah speeches accompanying galas and retirements. This is only compounded by some of the members’ diffidence. In solo outings with the orchestra, the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, has at times conveyed the sense that she’d rather be part of the group than show her stuff in front of them, which shows laudable team spirit, but not galvanizing leadership.

The third culprit is the Kennedy Center itself.

Without the Kennedy Center, the NSO would have folded years ago. The Kennedy Center saved the orchestra and maintains it, even though it is in the red and even as ticket sales (admittedly not the central marker of fiscal health) visibly decline. But this support comes at a price. The NSO is part of a large institution that has many other focuses. Marketing and fundraising are controlled by a central office. Marketing, in particular, needs work: The NSO sometimes seems invisible in the world around it. Even Eschenbach’s inaugural concerts didn’t attract much outside attention.

“The centralized way in which we have worked hasn’t been ideal,” says Rutter. “So we are rethinking how we do our business.”

The thinking is overdue. The Kennedy Center is Washington’s main presenter of classical music. Yet it appears to have made no clear effort to figure out how its classical institutions — the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center Orchestra, the Washington National Opera, the Fortas Chamber Concerts and others — represent the institution and interact with each other. The tendency has been to put together traditional concert series; make occasional forays into one-off, questionably conceived festivals; try outreach initiatives such as “NSO in Your Neighborhood”; and solve problems by throwing money at them — including Eschenbach’s $2 million salary — rather than undertaking the kind of systemic evaluation and improvement that Rutter says is now going on.

The National Symphony Orchestra, led by assistant conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl, performs at Union Station as part of NSO In Your Neighborhood. (Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post)

“I think in some ways there was a sense of, ‘Let’s just keep things going the way we’ve been doing them because it’s easier and simpler and we know how to do that,’ ” she says.

There is little doubt that Rutter, who has spent her entire career in the orchestral world, will play a considerable role in the ongoing music director search. There also is little doubt that she has already formed her own assessment of the orchestra’s current position. Sitting in her office with Rita Shapiro, the NSO’s executive director, Rutter demonstrates both a comfortable give-and-take with the administrator and a protective magnanimity, jumping in to take the tougher questions and veil them in a comfortable swathe of consultant-speak.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to understand the identity of the orchestra,” she says. “How we articulate it, how we talk about it, what’s the shared language around it. That all sounds very corporate, but it needs to be, especially with the institution here.”

At the moment, the vision is still unclear — as is the question of who’s going to implement it, and how, and with what funds. The Kennedy Center has deep pockets, but cost-cutting also is at issue in these challenging times, for an orchestra with a $36 million budget that’s not selling tickets. The NSO’s cello section is unhappy that one of its positions, left vacant due to retirement, will not be filled, reducing the section from 11 cellos to 10, although Shapiro says the ultimate outcome of this reduction is that the orchestra will maintain its current size.

The orchestra’s greatest strength, Shapiro says, is its “flexibility,” specifically its “willingness to try lots of different kinds of music” and “working with artists who are not of our classical world.” That’s a useful prerequisite for success in the 21st century, particularly for an orchestra that doubles as a pops orchestra. But it’s hardly going to help it forge a new identity. “I think they’re an orchestra that is really hungry to be great,” Shapiro says. But the NSO isn’t going to be great until everybody involved takes the responsibility of making it that way, rather than waiting for someone else — the marketing department, better winds, a new music director — to come along and fix it.

Social media as savior

Pereira, the principal horn player, has been a motivating force; other players are encouraged simply that the orchestra was able to win someone of his caliber. He offers a slightly different, European perspective on the NSO’s trajectory. Compared with its august counterparts in Europe, he avers, “This orchestra is in a growing process.” He adds: “The orchestras in Europe have established their tradition for so many years; they have so many recordings. . . . I am sure we will be there if we take the opportunity to reach the world audience through marketing, through social media.” Does he himself use social media? Not so much.

Pereira would make a good poster boy for a new NSO, one representing the very best of musical quality. One hopes he doesn’t also become a poster boy for the NSO’s current reality: a great musician in a so-so orchestra, waiting for someone, anyone, to make it better.