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October 20, 2008

Ivan Fischer leads NSO in majestic Mahler concert

Ivan FischerWhen the gifted Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer was given the "principal guest" spot on the National Symphony Orchestra's podium in 2006, speculation naturally had him in line to succeed Leonard Slatkin as music director. Instead, Fischer was named principal conductor for two years, beginning this season. (For you gossip fiends, word on the street was that his music director chances faded when he expressed some candid views on certain weak spots within the NSO.) The top job, as you know, just went instead to Christoph Eschenbach. Personally, I'm looking forward to Eschenbach, whose distinctive artistry I've admired for years. But I could have been just as enthusiastic if Fischer had received the nod, especially after the results he achieved Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in a program devoted to Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

To begin with ...

there was the quality of the orchestra's sound, which, I think, benefitted from the placement of the basses single-file against the back wall. (Fischer uses that configuration with his Budapest Festival Orchestra, too. Speaking of seating, Fischer also divides the NSO's first and second violins onstage, as Slatkin frequently did -- a time-honored seating arrangement I wish the Baltimore Symphony would experiment with.) There was an extra warmth and clarity throughout the string sections all night; the brass, with the smallest of exceptions, revealed admirable control, as well as ample tone that never turned blaring; the woodwinds were in highly colorful form; the percussion section was as sensitive to the slightest of effects as to the mightiest. The NSO rarely gets the respect it deserves. On nights like these (and some of the best nights of Slaktin's tenure, including his Mahler 6 last season), I think it is unmistakably on a world-class level. But Saturday was not just about technical skill. The performance also revealed abundant heart, thanks to Fischer's incisive, often exquistely nuanced approach to the daunting, roughly 95-minute score.

The conductor never lost sight of the overall architecture of the sprawling, multi-layered piece, never resorted to bombast or detoured into extended reverie, yet the interpretation was continually charged with both drama and poetry. I loved the almost chamber music-transparency he achieved in the gentler passages of the long first movement, as much as I delighted in the brisk buoyancy he brought to the march episodes. The coda was truly exhilarating. Craig Mulcahy's trombone playing in this opening movement had great tonal and expressive richness. The second movement found the violins at their sweetest as Fischer deftly sculpted the lilting waltz. The scherzo emerged with a mix of beauty and mystery; a small glitch aside, Steven Hendrickson's glowing offstage posthorn solo drifted into this dreamscape tellingly. Birgit Remmert's  vibrant contralto conveyed much of the depth of the Nietzsche poem in the fourth movement and made its mark on the subsequent choral movement, where the Children's Chorus of Washington and University of Maryland Concert Choir produced a lovely sound.

The soul of Mahler's Third is the finale, a kind of hymn that builds to a transcendent peak where everything about nature and humanity comes together in one profound statement of love's power. Fischer's tempo seemed just about right, slow without being heavy, never metronomic. His phrasing had an affecting intensity that carried the whole orchestra to the mountaintop, where the last chord was allowed a marvelous extension and, thankfully uninterrupted by premature applause, a turning inward, a softening in the very last seconds -- not an easy thing to achieve. A  long silence followed in the hall, the mark of a truly rapturous performance.

Fischer is in town for another couple of programs with the NSO. If Friday's Mahler performance is any indication, those are going to be two very hot weeks.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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