Saturday night at the Kennedy Center was my idea of a truly festive gala concert. It marked the official start of Christoph Eschenbach's tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra
and the opening of the ensemble's 80th season; he's also now the music director of the Kennedy Center itself, which expands his potential impact. While not perhaps as high-profile a news item as Riccardo Muti's taking of the Chicago Symphony's helm this season, Eschenbach's arrival in D.C. is, in my book, a huge deal.
This German-born pianist and conductor is, to begin with, a first-rate musician. Some folks (in Philadelphia, especially, where Eschenbach had a relatively short time leading that city's famed orchestra) never seem to notice -- or give sufficient credit for -- this fact. I've never understood how you can possibly miss it. The thing that really counts is that he's also a provocative musician -- in the best sense of the word. His ideas about interpretation command attention and, quite often, debate, which strikes me as an awfully healthy thing.
Saturday's program managed to be at once entertaining and substantive. Gala occasions for arts organizations are often mostly concerned with surface diversion for the people who cough up lots of money (they're not necessarily devout music lovers). In this case, the total raised from the event was about $1.7 million, a record for the NSO, said Kennedy Center chairman and Baltimore native David Rubenstein. For their efforts, these patrons were rewarded with two superstar guests, the radiant soprano Renee Fleming and the flashy, splashy pianist Lang Lang.
That guaranteed a certain crowd-pleasing quotient in itself, but Eschenbach raised the evening an extra notch by his choice of programming and his approach to everything on that program.
In two evergreens by Johann Strauss, the "Fldermaus" Overture and the "Emperor Waltz," the conductor brushed aside all evidence of the routine and made both sound fantastically fresh. He did so partly by
applying delicious use of rubato, partly by even more delicious, ever-so-gentle changes of dynamics. Above all, he treated this music as he would Brahms or Mahler, and that respect paid off handsomely. The NSO did some very classy playing in these items -- disciplined, yet with a spontaneous air and lots of personality.
Fleming appeared on the first half of the concert and almost walked back off before singing a note – all in jest. What happened was that the soprano got to the center of the stage only to discover that concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef was wearing a gown of almost the same green shade. To great laughter in the house, Fleming mimed full diva outrage. Once that cute shtick was over, she settled into a captivating performance of the "Four Last Songs" by Richard Strauss, long a specialty; she and Eschenbach recorded the songs some years ago.
Profoundly beautiful reflections on approaching mortality aren't necessarily the most obvious gala fare, but these songs fit this occasion perfectly. The performance was notable for spacious tempos and abundant nuance of phrasing.
Fleming's voice didn't always cut easily through the sumptuous orchestration, but she nonetheless managed to communicate richly. The conductor drew admirable sensitivity from his ensemble, with many a finely shaped phrase and carefully calibrated dynamic shading. Some details might have been even cleaner, but it was impossible to miss an orchestra connecting to the artistic pulse of its music director. Fleming followed the “Four Last Songs” with an encore, also by Strauss, "Cacilie," and delivered it elegantly; cConductor and orchestra again provided full support.
Lang Lang's showpiece came on the second half of the program -- Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1. The soloist was in a wildly individualistic mood, as usual, this time pushing extremes of adagio and pianissimo, rather than taking a more predictable, keyboard-bashing path. I'm sure some people thought its was all hideously mannered, self-indulgent tripe – Lang Lang always rubs certain types the wrong way -- but I found myself enjoying the delicate articulation, the dreamy lingering over the sweetest melodic lines. This is, after all, a concerto of the most romantic sort, and the pianist simply relished every opportunity to milk that element. It worked for me, at least in that time and space.
Eschenbach took nothing for granted with the orchestral role, ensuring an ever-eventful contribution from the players. There was a sense of a total collaborative effort, never mere background to the soloist.
Lang Lang's encores were done in the form of piano duets with Eschenbach -- two movements from Debussy's Petite Suite, performed with infectious charm and punctuated by enough bouncing and weaving from Lang Lang to add an dose, for better or worse, of comedy.
Eschenbach then asked Fleming -- now in a black gown -- to return for one more encore and sat back down at the keyboard to accompany her in the sublime "Morgen" by Richard Strauss. She sculpted the vocal line most exquisitely, while Eschenbach provided a model of pianistic refinement and subtle expressive power.
The evening clearly signaled that there will be many attractions to come in what promises to be a most interesting and rewarding musical adventure in Washington.
PHOTOS (by Scott Suchman) COURTESY OF NSO