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October 18, 2010

Chemistry between Christoph Eschenbach and National Symphony sizzles in Mahler's Fifth

Christoph Eschenbach wrapped up his first few weeks as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra with a terrific affirmation of how much he brings to the job. (My Sunday article on Eschenbach addresses some of those assets.)

The chemistry between conductor and ensemble Friday night at the Kennedy Center could be easily felt in a graceful, nimble account of Mozart's Symphony No. 34 and produced downright sizzling results in Mahler's Fifth.

It was one of the most emotionally fulfilling performances of that Mahler work I've heard live in a concert hall, one of the few that could measure up in interpretive depth to cherished recordings.

Eschenbach took delight in all of those things that some of us Mahler nuts crave, and some folks look down upon -- exaggerated rhythmic contrasts, from glacial to supersonic, and lots of rubato within tempos; enormous dynamic range, from mere whisper to cataclysmic; no end of expressive richness throughout, so that each melody, even each melodic fragment, can register as vital and revealing.

How affecting it was to hear the sad theme that weaves through the first two movements shaped with such breadth and depth. And how rewarding to hear

the famous Adagietto paced spaciously, rather than with the cool, detached propulsion now more widely favored.

No Mahler symphony, it seems to me, is an abstract musical puzzle to be put together methodically and purely intellectually. There should always be some element of the unexpected, the offbeat (so to speak), and maybe a little of the unnerving. Eschenbach's Mahler sounded wonderfully unsafe, volatile, very personal. Just the way I like it.  

The conductor drew some mighty impressive playing from the NSO. The few ragged edges (most significantly, fuzzy articulation in the last measures of the first movement) mattered little in light of so much vivid, communicative playing. It was a particularly great night for the strings, but strengths could be felt in each of the sections, notably the percussion. Excellent trumpet and horn solos also hit home.

During the ovations, the musicians insisted, as they had a couple weeks ago after performing Beethoven's Ninth with him, that Eschenbach enjoy a bow to himself, and they joined heartily in the applause. Such gestures may disappear, of course, over time, as the relationship between music director and orchestra develops (Eschenbach isn't due back in DC until January), but it sure looks to me like one more sign that things have started off awfully well.

PHOTO (by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman) COURTESY OF NSO

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


I was in the audience on Saturday night, October 16th, and had much the same impression. Several things struck me about this performance:
1) I watched both orchestra and conductor through opera glasses during the Mahler 5th symphony performance, as well as the 34th symphony of Mozart. The NSO players were obviously enjoying themselves - many were smiling, and one had the sense of a growing bond between conductor and orchestra.
2) I always ask questions of the ushers wherever I sit - they can tell you a lot that mere observation sometimes overlooks. My usher on Saturday beamed when I asked her about orchestra rapport with their new conductor. "He has them under control," she responded. Ushers often catch things that us ordinary mortal listeners sometimes miss.
3) An obvious observation is that Maestro Eschenbach has memorized some extremely difficult (and lengthy) scores. This obvious makes for better rapport with the orchestra. Last spring our Washington Chorus sang the Verdi Requiem with him - all conducted by memory. The Bruckner Sixth Symphony last week - by memory. And both the Mozart and the Mahler this past weekend - also by memory. That has to impress itself on an orchestra, I should think, in a positive way. Just trying to memorize our choral music as a choral singer is difficult enough - how much more to comprehend a complete score for almost 100 orchestral instruments as a conductor?
4) As cellist Steve Honigberg has noted twice in musical blog postings in the Washington Post, the orchestra has come to respect and appreciate the gifts of its new conductor. And Eschenbach obviously likes what he hears, and trusts his players. This bond can be worth gold in the future.
5) An added gift is his pianistic abilities. He can perform chamber works with orchestra members on other stages - and even as an encore (the Beethoven "Spring" Violin Sonata after the Bruckern performance)with a well-known soloist. His rapport with artists such as Lang Lang and Renee Fleming is extraordinary - they revere him as a spiritual and musical father figure.
6) And on Saturday I was also startled when the entire house rose as one the moment the final chords of the Mahler died away. This I had never experienced in Kennedy Center before. It does seem an auspicious beginning to what should be an enriching and exciting five years.

Thanks so much for sharing your observations, especially since I find them so persuasive. I know I'm going to be putting an awful lot of extra Balt/DC mileage on my car in the years ahead. TIM

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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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