Christoph Eschenbach continues his fall home stand with the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, presenting an appealing trio of works that all seem to grow — in different directions — out of the brooding, loamy soil of Mahler.
At Thursday evening’s well-attended opening concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was the D.C. premiere of “Sidereus” by Osvaldo Golijov, co-commissioned by the NSO. This eclectic Argentinian composer seems to acquire stature and achievement with each new work; he had a long way to go when his work started getting performed, but the past several pieces I’ve heard were increasingly substantive.
His latest, a paean to the moon, begins with glowering chords straight out of Sibelius, then moves into more active textures. Long-breathed, Hollywood-style themes emerge from skittering, motile string passages that recall John Adams. Although there isn’t much in the way of development, the piece — unlike many of its predecessors — is not a moment too long; it makes you want to hear more.
Then there was Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, an early work whose appeal depends largely on the soloist. The musical material is of varying quality, and the piece is particularly hobbled by a slow, ambiguous ending that meanders for too long. But the other movements have sections of great charm, even sexiness. Unfortunately, Midori, the evening’s soloist, found little of either.
An artist who has been concertizing professionally since she was 11, Midori is at home onstage; her intonation is rock-solid, and her technique is formidable. But she is not a natural player. Her head is often at an uncomfortable-looking angle, and her overall posture can become oppositional and contorted in stressful passages. Whether this is correlation or causation, she also produces a pinched, colorless sound that in many spots was only audible because of Britten’s exquisite, airy orchestration.
Kudos to Midori for memorizing and presenting a huge piece that she probably won’t get very much mileage out of, but the standing ovation she received was inexplicable.
Eschenbach closed out the relatively short program with Shostakovich’s First Symphony, a work of astounding confidence from a conservatory undergraduate. Although the precocious Russian had not yet acquired the control of momentum and long time-spans that feature in his later works, his characteristic sound print was fully formed in the swiftly passing scenes of sarcasm, menace, grandiosity and impishness.
The symphony is a high-wire act, featuring short solos scattered throughout the orchestra that must connect playfully and seamlessly. Tiny flubs have major consequences, and there were a few Thursday night. The NSO’s string soloists were more reliable than their counterparts in the wind and brass, though the long, anguished oboe melody in the Lento was lovely.
Eschenbach’s leadership was, as usual, deeply musical but sometimes undisciplined. He might have done more to calm his players’ first-night jitters and should have done a lot more to protect the strings from the brass and percussion sorties.
The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.