The Baltimore Sun
By Tim Smith
June 13, 2011
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Taking the measure of National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach

I started my weekend Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in order to hear Christoph Eschenbach's last program of his inaugural season as National Symphony Orchestra music director.

It proved to be an extraordinary experience -- which is to say a typical Eschenbach concert.

Something about this man's musicianship, with its unapologetic individuality, first impressed me a long time ago, which is why I thought it was such great news when he got the NSO post.

I won't presume to speak with great authority (which is unusual for me), since I have not been able to catch all of Eschenbach's performances this season (if Baltimore and DC were connected, as they should be, by a high-speed, round-the-clock rail/metro system, you couldn't keep me away). But I will say that each encounter has made me feel that the NSO sounds better than ever.

It's not just a matter of technical improvements, although they have been noticeable -- greater clarity of articulation, smoother responses from sections, a more pronounced cohesiveness. It's also a sense of musicians zeroing in tightly on Eschenbach's distinctive wavelength and going along with him fully for the ride.

That ride was especially captivating on Friday during the Adagio of ...

Schumann's Symphony No. 2. You don't typically hear this movement taken so very slowly. Then again, you don't always hear it sound so moving, almost Mahler-like in its depth.

I was mesmerized both by the conductor's approach and the NSO's intensely beautifully response to it -- this was music-making that went way beyond the printed page to brush against what I took to be Schumann's soul. That sort of rush is what makes me look forward to Eschenbach's concerts. 

I hasten to add that I greatly enjoyed the Baltimore Symphony's performance of this same symphony and that same Adagio only last month, with Marin Alsop at her most engaging. But what I heard on Friday in Washington was more transporting still.

I wish I knew how long each of those Adagios lasted (I can understand why Harold Schonberg used to have a stopwatch at concerts to jot down varying durations). It seemed to me that Eschenbach's Adagio lasted almost twice the time, even though Alsop's wasn't at all rushed. There may have been only a couple minutes' difference, but what a difference it made.

Anyway, I don't want to belabor any of this -- yes, I know; it's too late for that -- but I do want to reiterate that the unusual, compelling nature of that Adagio alone would have been enough to make Friday's concert exceptional.

The whole of Schumann's Second benefited from Eschenbach's touch. There was a dark mystery to the opening; a superb dash through the Scherzo, with the strings nimbly and colorfully negotiating the busiest of passages; a finale with an expressive weight that seemed to point toward Bruckner (as that sublime Adagio hinted at Mahler).

Along the way, there were many marvelous dynamic nuances, subtle bends in the tempo, dramatic pauses or surges -- all the things I usually can thrill to only on very old recordings by long-ago musicians.

The program opened with more Schumann, his infrequently heard Overture to "Die Braut von Messina," which received a bold, taut performance. The strings again offered particularly admirable work.

The Schumann scores bookended the U.S. premiere of Violin Concerto No. 3, "Juggler in Paradise," by Augusta Read Thomas. This NSO co-commission represents a significant addition to the repertoire.

Structured in a single, 20-minute span, the vividly orchestrated score "juggles" ideas and rhythms to create an absorbing dialogue between soloist and orchestra. There's a lot of jaunty, pointillistic writing that gradually builds up to what suggests Bernstein's jazziest dances from "West Side Story" -- but on speed.

An enormous percussion battery is employed, with the bongos providing extra color, but the violin nonetheless holds its own, eventually taming the orchestra in a concluding section of rapt lyricism.

Jennifer Koh was the confident, communicative soloist. She enjoyed supple partnering from Eschenbach, vivid interaction from the NSO.

All things considered, a most rewarding concert that didn't just mix the old with the new, but also made the old sound new. That's not a bad way to sum up Eschenbach's first NSO season.

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