As the National Symphony Orchestra closes out its Kennedy Center season this weekend — with a well-played, easy-listening program of Berlioz, Lalo and Tchaikovsky — music director Christoph Eschenbach and his NSO have taken full measure of each other by now, with the music-making having become more efficient and natural.
Most gratifying is the tempering of the winds and brass, which for far too long have routinely drowned out the NSO strings. Balances on Thursday night were better, even in the bombastic Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky. In familiar repertoire such as this, the orchestra plays with strength and confidence and can sound terrific.
Precision of ensemble remains a problem at times, as it has often been with this band. Eschenbach, with his fluttery gestures, doesn’t place a premium on this aspect, but he should. Occasionally an excellent guest conductor — Lorin Maazel, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and Manfred Honeck come to mind — has shown that the NSO can achieve attacks and releases comparable to any of the country’s top orchestras.
In the Berlioz “Roman Carnival Overture,” the strings sang out with glowing purpose in the introduction. The main section featured virtuoso playing in the winds but, again, not the tightest ensemble (Eschenbach had accidentally dropped his baton, and led most of the piece with only his hands, compounding the problem).
The evening’s soloist, South American cellist Claudio Bohorquez, was memorably superb. He truly made a meal of the Lalo Cello Concerto. Color and drama, unerring pitch and projection of individual musical ideas even in difficult passage-work; it was all there. His vibrato occasionally got too intense and lost its center (such as in the concerto’s opening), but Bohorquez is a top-tier cellist. This was as fine a rendition of this concerto as I’ve ever heard.
After an unnecessarily lugubrious opening — shaped with care but unnaturally paced — Eschenbach’s reading of the Tchaikovsky was the most architectural of anything he’s done here. Throughout the Fifth Symphony, he conveyed a sense of looking at the entire piece from above, carefully shepherding the “motto theme” through to its blazing (if by then tiresome) conclusion. Although tempos were on the heavy side, and he lingered over expressive points, there was a sense of long-term cohesion that was satisfying. The andante cantabile movement was the high point of the evening, a virtual four-movement epic symphony in miniature.
Again, the only general quibble would be the ensemble. The opening of the allegro section of the finale and the climactic pizzicatos of the andante cantabile were but two of many spots that can and should be better together.
That aside, this was music-making of a very high order, and the NSO can be proud of its season finale.
The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.