Eschenbach serves notice of exciting era to come with National Symphony
Years ago, I met a music critic who said he knew after only the first minute of a concert how the whole performance -- and his review -- was going to come out. That always struck me as just a wee bit unlikely, but, what the heck, I'm going to take that concept another whole step:
After the first few seconds of playing by the National Symphony Orchestra at the performance of Verdi's Requiem Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, conducted by music director designate Christoph Eschenbach, I didn't just know that the concert was going to be awfully good. I also knew in that brief moment that Eschenbach's tenure -- it launches officially in September -- will be terrifically rewarding. So there.
All right, I'll try to talk more sensibly now. But, still, I wish you could have heard that fabulous opening pianissimo from the strings, which seemed to emerge from the Other Side (the same effect was achieved later at the beginning of the "Lux Aeterna" movement). You just don't hear soft playing like that every day, and subtlety is always harder to produce -- and often far more rewarding -- than gung-ho power. That exceptionally delicate sound, filled as it was with great import, signaled, to me at least, that the orchestra was locked already onto Eschenbach's wave length, was already trying hard to give him what we wanted.
Not that he didn't unleash brute force as well, and draw from the NSO and superb Washington Chorus an equally involved response in the process. The iconic "Dies irae" explosions shook the place, for example; the great crescendo in the "Rex tremendae" passage likewise had visceral impact.
Coodination among all the assembled masses slipped out of gear once in a while, as in the fugal activity of the "Sanctus," but there was never any doubt of Eschenbach's sensitive command. All evening, this was quite a demonstration of interpretive integrity and imagination, signaling that the Eschenbach era is going to be stimulating, at the very least.
In addition to all the admirable playing by the NSO on Saturday, the Washington Chorus (Julian Wachner, music director) offered carefully balanced, vividly articulated singing. It's impossible to overstate how strongly these first-rate choristers contributed to the experience.
Alas, it was a different story with the guest artists. Presumably, Eschenbach chose (or at least sanctioned) the solo vocal quartet, and, presumably, he had good reasons at the time. I can't imagine he was thrilled with the results.
I wouldn't call any of the four singers ideal in terms of voice size and quality for this work; they all lacked the kind of heaven-storming, Verdian power and glint I like to hear in this work. But three did get the job done decently, with a good deal of basic musicianship and some ardent phrasing -- mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Nikolai Schukoff (his soft tones in the "Hostias" line of the "Offertorio" were especially effective), and bass Evgeny Nikitin (he has at his most imposing and persuasive in the "Cunfutatis").
Too bad the composer put so much responsibility on the soprano soloist. Twyla Robinson never sounded fully up to that challenge. Her tone was much too thin, for starters; this is a part for dramatic soprano (there's a reason some early critics of the Requiem complained that it was too operatic). Robinson had a few appealing moments, to be sure, but her top register often turned shrill and pitch-shy. Worse, she had an embarrassing choke on the high, pianissimo note in "Libera me." Since no announcement of indisposition was made, it's hard to understand so much technical unevenness.
That said, even this curious and unfortunate drawback could be put aside in the end, since so much went so well in a performance that was surely a harbinger of great things to come in Washington.