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April 9, 2011

Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony

I know I should avoid such a cheesy adjective, but the word I keep thinking of to describe the National Symphony Orchestra's concert on Friday is "heavenly."

That covers the program itself -- Webern's subtly rapturous "Im sommerwind"; Golijov's radiant orchestration of four Schubert songs dealing with images of love, longing, peace, and a moonlit "holy night"; Mahler's gentle, nostalgic Symphony No. 4, with its final movement depicting a child's view of celestial pleasures. What an extraordinarily imaginative, absorbing combination of repertoire.

I must say there was also something really quite "heavenly" about this Kennedy Center performance, too. The NSO's compelling music director Christoph Eschenbach was in his element here. I haven't come across many conductors who care so much about soft dynamics, who can get an orchestra to go beyond the normal range of pianissimo to touch another whole realm of delicacy. And this program gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate that sensitivity.

The hushed opening and close of the Webern score, for example, proved magical as Eschenbach drew from the musicians exquisite nuances. The same sort of thing happened often during the concert -- a level of subtle expressiveness that communicated richly.

The fascinating Golijov-Schubert piece, titled "She Was Here," incorporates "Wandrers Nachtlied," "Nur wer di Sehnsucht kennt,""Dass sie hier gewesen," and "Nacht und Traume." Golijov has created a gorgeous orchestral song cycle. He preserves Schubert's original melodic lines while creating around them a shimmering orchestral fabric that connects the songs to our world in a new way.

The NSO enjoyed the distinct advantage of Dawn Upshaw as soloist. The soprano, a frequent collaborator with Golijov, gave the premiere of the work in 2008. Upshaw has long been one of the most incisive vocal artists on the scene (she has emerged quite triumphant from a bout with cancer a few years ago), and she  demonstrated great eloquence here, using her burnished low register to especially keen effect. Eschenbach had the NSO practically breathing with the singer.

In Mahler's Fourth, the violins occasionally lost tonal smoothness and a few brass and woodwind contributions could have used more finesse, but the orchestra's playing overall proved very impressive. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef took on the famous dual-instrument solos with elan.

In the finale, ...

Upshaw sang "Das Himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") with a true sense of childlike wonder, spinning out a gleaming tone.

I confess to a fondness for the startling tempo-stretching that Willem Mengelberg adopted in his historic 1930s recording of Mahler's Fourth, especially in the opening movement. Of course, it's an approach I don't really expect to encounter in a concert hall (although a performance I heard in in Florida years ago conducted by James Judd came amazingly close). For his part, Eschenbach kept things relatively straightforward, rubato-wise, in that opening movement, but there was still plenty of charm and color.

He effectively tapped into the rustic color of the second movement and dug into the sublime poetry of the third most persuasively. Eschenbach saved his most distinctive and inspiring touches for the finale, taking the last verse of the song at a slower pace than typically encountered. That was beautiful enough, allowing Upshaw to underline the point of the words -- "There is no music on earth that can compare with ours" -- more richly.

But Eschenbach also had the subdued orchestral coda slowing even more, getting the players to produce another remarkable pianissimo. The last, deep note was held onto for what seemed, quite appropriately, like an eternity, all the while dissipating ever so gradually.

I don't mind telling you that I got a little misty-eyed hearing that long, slow fade and the equally telling silence that followed. This sort of thing just doesn't happen every day of concert-going. Like I said at the beginning: Heavenly.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (3)


Tim -

What is the reason for the using the two different violins in the Mahler #4?

Mahler wanted to spice up the folk dance idioms that run through the second movement so he asked that a second violin, tuned a little off the norm, be used for certain passages to add a piquant touch. It's meant to suggest the kind of fiddle sound you might hear at a pub or country gathering. (It can probably be better explained, but that's the basic idea.) TIM

Nope, you got it, Tim -- the "honky-tonk" violin, so to speak. ;^)

(Puts the "rust" in "rustic.")

Eschenbach has a magical way with Mahler, and his view of the 4th is sublime.

You would have been misty-eyed at the Saturday performance. At the conclusion of the Mahler, as the sound was fading into silence, someones cell phone went off.


There really ought to be a law. And something just short of capital punishment as the fine. 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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