On a day when many in Washington were debating the vitality and necessity of the arts, the National Symphony Orchestra convened at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to pay homage to some of the great works of human creation.
They’re things we take for granted, these musical masterpieces of the Western canon — “we” meaning not music lovers, or even critics, but we as a society. In many people’s minds, classical music is on the fringes of what really matters. The concert hall was full of empty seats. There was a sense of the routine, the dutiful, in the performances of Mozart and Bruckner. When classical music becomes part of our lives, we risk letting it become mundane and overlooking its wonders.
The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach, a man who is nearing the end of his NSO tenure without having made a real difference in the public face of the orchestra. Eschenbach has hired new players, some of whom made beautiful sounds through the evening, such as principal horn player Abel Pereira. He has a nice rapport, it seems, with the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, who had a turn in the spotlight as soloist in Mozart’s third violin concerto — one of several such spotlights she and other NSO principals have gotten under Eschenbach, who presented her with flowers and embraced her at the end of the performance. But whether he has left a mark on Washington, or brought a new wind to the orchestra, is questionable. Witness, again, the empty seats or the players’ matter-of-fact execution, which seemed more an act of homage to the past than a vivid reanimation.
Mozart, at least, is an easy sell: The third violin concerto is one of those pieces people think of when they invoke Mozart’s artless brilliance, shining eternal and ephemeral like a soap bubble made of gold.
Bar-Josef has a singing tone, too, and she hit all the notes accurately, although not quite lingering and singing with them as she might have, while the orchestra, a little ploddingly, backed her up.
I always complain about Eschenbach’s balances, but maybe it’s the Kennedy Center concert hall that conspires with his particular approach to pick out each instrumental section and make it stand out until you have a bottom-heavy amalgamation of voices that threatens to resist coalescing into an amiable whole.
The classical canon is filled with quirky, odd, complicated and slightly unpleasant figures whose challenges we manage to veil from ourselves by wrapping them in costumes of familiarity, so that we see Mozart as an enchanting child and Beethoven as a lovable curmudgeon. Anton Bruckner, however, stubbornly resists being made into a more cuddly version of himself, although his music is at times the sweetest and most childlike of all.
He is music’s savant, a simple unkempt man whose belief in the power of music is so naive and naked in his massive, craggy works that you don’t always know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of this very human man wrestling with the great questions of the universe. It’s not just that his symphonies are so big and blocky; it’s that he rewrote them so many times, so the “first” symphony, which was played on Thursday, was revised over more than 20 years. It remains more lyrical than some of his others: the scherzo, for instance, less driving, and the full second movement with an almost Hollywood air to its grandiloquence, at least in Eschenbach’s reading. The orchestra played willingly for him, but with a sense of discharging a duty rather than rediscovering a truth.
The program repeats Friday morning at 11:30 and Saturday at 8 p.m.