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March 15, 2010

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.

Throughout, Eschenbach's

masterful sense of line, his way of ensuring that phrases developed organically, generated affecting results. His tempos were flexible, allowing room for rubato and some very emotionally charged expansiveness. The surefire Last Judgment call, with its antiphonal brass forces, seemed even more compelling than usual, thanks to Eschenbach's spacious, detailed approach (and some spot-on players). The closing measures of the score were molded with a superb ear for musical drama.

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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:04 AM | | Comments (3)


To paraphrase Bob Dole:

You know it, I know it, and the people of the DC region will know it. (The only person who doesn't know it is Peter Dobrin in Philly.)

Despite the ugly situation in Philly that led to Maestro Eschenbach's departure (reportedly, infighting over Eschenbach being "forced" upon the musicians by an unstable management -- or, how poor administration can cripple a good organization politically), every Eschenbach concert I attended was an absolute joy, whether Mahler, Mozart, Bruckner, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Brahms, etc. -- and the experiences only _improved_ over time. (As I've said before, he left on a very high note as music director.)

I could not ask for a better neighbour in DC, and I can only hope that the musicians of the NSO embrace him with their whole hearts and take advantage of his tenure. He can surely lead them toward "world class."

(Regarding the slipping "out of gear," this happened when he led the Mahler 2nd; the strings kinda came unglued in the finale. [Everyone else, including the chorus, was spot-on and titanic.] But this was an exception in my experience, and I sensed virtually no slipping of any notable kind when they later did the 8th, even on its first night!)

One final note: he has quite a way with Saint-Saƫns' organ symphony -- hopefully he does this soon! The piece generally bores me, but his concept is an exception!

Actually, Eschenbach was forced on the musicians, no quotes, air or otherwise, about it. An article by Doreen Carvajal from the New York Times right after Eschenbach's appointment in Philadelphia was announced has this passage:

''When this announcement was proclaimed after a half-hour meeting with us, there wasn't applause; there was criticism,'' recalled a musician with the Philadelphia Orchestra. ''One member of the search committee got up and said, 'You'll see, you'll like him.' ''

''The orchestra was taken aback by the attitude because there was no meeting to verify what we thought,'' the musician said. ''There was no chemistry with Eschenbach. He hasn't conducted us in four or five years and 20 to 30 persons had never played with him.''

"You'll see, you'll like him'? Hardly a ringing endorsement, or an indication of making sure that the right choice is made, for an incoming music director of one of the world's great orchestras. You involve the musicians' input during the search to gauge how well the relationship will work, not afterwards.

Dobrin is irrevocably compromised in his objectivity towards Eschenbach (or Vladimir Jurowski now, in the opposite, gushy sense), to be sure, but even a broken clock gets it right twice a day. Clearly, Eschenbach should never have been hired to Philadelphia in the first place. One hopes things will go better with the National Symphony Orchestra, if for no other reason that the key difference between the two situations: the NSO musicians presumably had a voice in the hiring. The Philly musicians clearly did not.

Geo.: I'm well aware of the situation in Philly. Oh, I totally agree that Eschenbach was forcibly "forced" upon the musicians (my descriptions of their management at the time should reinforce this -- in no way would I ever endorse such behaviour!!!). I used the quotes not for irony (or to be subjective) but to imply that, ultimately, if the Philadelphians had owned a real voice in their organization (which should always be the case, of course), then the hiring never would have occurred. (The fact that they're _still_ searching clearly indicates the relative instability of the situation. And the fallout from this unfortunate scenario lingers -- but to what extent?)

IMHumO, forced or not, the musicians' response to Eschenbach's hiring was unjustifiably negative. I think professionals such as the Philadelphians shouldn't have pitched quite a fit -- largely behind their music director's back, no less. (Eschenbach had an amusing quote, somewhere, where he compared the situation with intrigues in Wien -- and he made Wien sound _better_!) If anything, then the disgusted musicians should have gone on strike immediately when the news broke. But politics, being the ugly beast it is, clearly didn't give them the support for that option (or maybe their paychecks made them think twice, understandably), and the wound festered. (Ongoing backstabbing makes no one look good.) All things considered, I think that Eschenbach made a very graceful exit. (Fortunately, the musicians allowed for this -- ultimately. ;^)

Don't forget that many in the BSO thought Alsop was "forced" upon them, too. The response wasn't quite so intense and negative, thankfully (and didn't a "regime change" occur around the same time, too?), and they have developed a rather remarkable relationship with their new director. Certain factions in Philly, on the other hand, let their bitterness get the best of them. They may have "won" in the end, but they didn't really win anything.

As for Dobrin being right twice a day: coincidence. Sheer coincidence. ;^)

(Yeah, he fawns disgustingly over Jurowski, who just doesn't impress me all that much anyway... Way too early to tell!)

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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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