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March 3, 2010

Christoph Eschenbach's enticing inaugural season as National Symphony music director

It's that time of year when music organizations announce their next season. While waiting for the Baltimore Symphony to make its plans known, take a gander at what the National Symphony has in store for its inaugural season with music director Christoph Eschenbach.

It's an unusually enticing lineup, which only has me wishing more than ever that DC and Baltimore were better connected by mass transportation (I am so tired of that drive, but unable to resist a lot of musical activity there).

Eschenbach tends to divide critics into pro and anti camps, primarily because of the individuality of his music-making. I've always been in the pro column, ever since hearing him conduct music of Berg with the New World Symphony ages ago, and each subsequent experience -- even when I've been less impressed with his results in a work here or there -- has reaffirmed my belief that he's one of the most interesting, incisive and inspiring conductors around. So I'm eager to hear what he achieves with the NSO, especially in his adventurous first season.

The opening gala Sept 25 is all about star power -- Renee Fleming and Lang Lang are the guests, both of them vocal Eschenbach fans -- but a program that includes

Strauss "Four Last Songs" is not just playing to be-tuxed masses. The subscription series kicks off a week later with an obvious, hey-I'm-in-charge-now blockbuster for a new music director, Beethoven's Ninth, but it's balanced by the NSO's first performance of Matthias Pintscher's "Hérodiade-Fragmente."

A fair amount of contemporary works dot the programming all season, including, as part of the Kennedy Center-wide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, the world premiere of a piece by Peter Lieberson for narrator and orchestra, using as texts some of Kennedy’s speeches. Eschenbach will also lead the U.S. premiere of a violin concerto by Augusta Read Thomas and the first NSO performance of Osvaldo Golijov's "She Was Here."

Eschenbach will be on the podium for such blockbusters as Messiaen's "Turangalila Symphony," Bruckner's Sixth and Mahler's Fifth. The Messiaen work will be part of the Kennedy Center's celebration of India; the NSO's contributions also include a sitar concerto by Ravi Shankar and Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony (texts by Tagore), both led by Eschenbach.

When the music director is not on the podium (he's got 10 weeks of the season), there's still a lot of attractive, under-exposed repertoire -- Tchaikovsky's "Manfred," Prokofiev's Sixth, Walton's Cello Concerto, et al. -- along with bread-and-butter works. All in all, a season that bears a strong stamp and promises much.

You don't have to wait until the fall to sample Eschenbach's artistry. He makes his first appearance with the NSO since the 2008 announcement of his appointment next week, leading Verdi's "Requiem." Seems a little odd to say "Howdy, Washington" with a musical Mass for the Dead, but, hey, it sure is a great attention-getter. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:33 PM | | Comments (2)


If Eschenbach leads the Washington forces in Verdi's "Requiem" as well as he led the Philadelphians in Mahler's 8th, then the DC classical community is in for an absolute blast. (Good news for us: he's even closer now! Yes, the drive still sucks, but with programming such as next season promises, winding through DC will definitely suck less. Uh-oh, I can hear the Nicorette lawyers now... ;^)

Now if only the Baltimore Symphony and the Washington Performing Arts Society would announce their seasons, we could plan our orchestra-going for 2010-2011.


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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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