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October 4, 2010

Eschenbach, National Symphony in memorable program of Beethoven, Pintscher

I told you it was going to be cool having Christoph Eschenbach around here.

The first subscription series program of his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra provided an ideal introduction to the man and his artistry. Choosing Beethoven’s Ninth as a calling card is hardly outside-the-box, but the way Eschenbach saddled up and guided that war horse would have been enough to make the Saturday’s concert at the Kennedy Center memorable.

This was music-making you just don’t encounter every day, outside of discerning record collections. Not just another Ninth, with all the expected peaks, but an interpretation charged with extra power and personality -- an exhilarating ride.

Before saying a little more about that part of the evening, let me hasten to mention the first half of the program, devoted to

a large-scale, thorny work by contemporary German composer Matthias Pintscher.

You will recall Marin Alsop’s Beethoven-symphonies-paired-with-something-by-a-living-composer programming during her inaugural season with the Baltimore Symphony. In the same way, Eschenbach aimed to give audiences a fresh experience, one that could help them hear Beethoven in a new light. As he said to the packed house Saturday, this sort of juxtaposition only works if the modern piece is first rate. Pintscher’s “Herodiade-Fragmente,” premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1999, when the composer was still in his 20s, is decidedly first-rate.

Scored for soprano and super-sized orchestra with a ton of exotic percussion instruments, the work produces quite a head and ear trip. The dense, richly evocative text by Mallarme is a kind of monodrama for Herodiade (Herodias), mother of the notorious Salome. Pintscher treats the poetry in exceedingly angular fashion, inserting many a wild leap and putting many an odd spin on a syllable, but the result is always coherent and strongly communicative.

Marisol Montalvo was the stunning soloist, giving much more than a vocal tour de force; she brought the disturbed and disturbing character to life in mesmerizing fashion. Eschenbach drew from the NSO some terrific playing, as much in the colossal outbursts as in the subtlest of effects, especially the eerie, on-the-verge-of-inaudible rumbles after Herodiade’s outburst, “Je meurs!” (I die).

With Beethoven Nine, the potency of Eschenbach’s approach could be felt through such things as the weighty fortissimos in the first movement, so full of import and tension; the taut propulsion of the Scherzo (punctuated superbly by timpanist Jauvon Dumaine); and, especially, the breadth and glow in the phrasing of the Adagio (where so many conductors today push this movement along, Eschenbach took time to savor the exquisite lyricism). The “Ode to Joy” finale held together firmly, yet had a wonderful air of spontaneity and, well, honest-to-goodness joy.

Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington sang sturdily (if with a little strain from the tenors), and the solo quartet – Montalvo, mezzo Yvonne Naef, tenor Nikolai Schukoff, bass-baritone John Relyea – also came through in style. A couple of slightly fuzzy moments aside, the orchestra again turned in a cohesive, impassioned performance.

As enjoyable as the evening was musically, I did have some issues with a couple of fellow audience members. There was the guy behind me who kept kicking my seat, and the woman farther away who coughed crudely and incredibly often. I felt like contacting New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino to ask if he could “take out” a couple more people while he’s at it.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:41 AM | | Comments (0)

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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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