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June 13, 2011

Taking the measure of National Symphony Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach

I started my weekend Friday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in order to hear Christoph Eschenbach's last program of his inaugural season as National Symphony Orchestra music director.

It proved to be an extraordinary experience -- which is to say a typical Eschenbach concert.

Something about this man's musicianship, with its unapologetic individuality, first impressed me a long time ago, which is why I thought it was such great news when he got the NSO post.

I won't presume to speak with great authority (which is unusual for me), since I have not been able to catch all of Eschenbach's performances this season (if Baltimore and DC were connected, as they should be, by a high-speed, round-the-clock rail/metro system, you couldn't keep me away). But I will say that each encounter has made me feel that the NSO sounds better than ever.

It's not just a matter of technical improvements, although they have been noticeable -- greater clarity of articulation, smoother responses from sections, a more pronounced cohesiveness. It's also a sense of musicians zeroing in tightly on Eschenbach's distinctive wavelength and going along with him fully for the ride.

That ride was especially captivating on Friday during the Adagio of ...

Schumann's Symphony No. 2. You don't typically hear this movement taken so very slowly. Then again, you don't always hear it sound so moving, almost Mahler-like in its depth.

I was mesmerized both by the conductor's approach and the NSO's intensely beautifully response to it -- this was music-making that went way beyond the printed page to brush against what I took to be Schumann's soul. That sort of rush is what makes me look forward to Eschenbach's concerts. 

I hasten to add that I greatly enjoyed the Baltimore Symphony's performance of this same symphony and that same Adagio only last month, with Marin Alsop at her most engaging. But what I heard on Friday in Washington was more transporting still.

I wish I knew how long each of those Adagios lasted (I can understand why Harold Schonberg used to have a stopwatch at concerts to jot down varying durations). It seemed to me that Eschenbach's Adagio lasted almost twice the time, even though Alsop's wasn't at all rushed. There may have been only a couple minutes' difference, but what a difference it made.

Anyway, I don't want to belabor any of this -- yes, I know; it's too late for that -- but I do want to reiterate that the unusual, compelling nature of that Adagio alone would have been enough to make Friday's concert exceptional.

The whole of Schumann's Second benefited from Eschenbach's touch. There was a dark mystery to the opening; a superb dash through the Scherzo, with the strings nimbly and colorfully negotiating the busiest of passages; a finale with an expressive weight that seemed to point toward Bruckner (as that sublime Adagio hinted at Mahler).

Along the way, there were many marvelous dynamic nuances, subtle bends in the tempo, dramatic pauses or surges -- all the things I usually can thrill to only on very old recordings by long-ago musicians.

The program opened with more Schumann, his infrequently heard Overture to "Die Braut von Messina," which received a bold, taut performance. The strings again offered particularly admirable work.

The Schumann scores bookended the U.S. premiere of Violin Concerto No. 3, "Juggler in Paradise," by Augusta Read Thomas. This NSO co-commission represents a significant addition to the repertoire.

Structured in a single, 20-minute span, the vividly orchestrated score "juggles" ideas and rhythms to create an absorbing dialogue between soloist and orchestra. There's a lot of jaunty, pointillistic writing that gradually builds up to what suggests Bernstein's jazziest dances from "West Side Story" -- but on speed.

An enormous percussion battery is employed, with the bongos providing extra color, but the violin nonetheless holds its own, eventually taming the orchestra in a concluding section of rapt lyricism.

Jennifer Koh was the confident, communicative soloist. She enjoyed supple partnering from Eschenbach, vivid interaction from the NSO.

All things considered, a most rewarding concert that didn't just mix the old with the new, but also made the old sound new. That's not a bad way to sum up Eschenbach's first NSO season.



Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO


The same feeling you had about the Schumann Second Symphony I have about the performance of Mahler's First Symphony played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglwood on 31 July 2011 conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. The program began with the Haydn C Major 'Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. Following the score with the Kalmus octavo edition, I was stunned and delighted to hear the most revealing performance of the work I've ever heard, which include recordings by Walter, Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Mehta and Leinsdorf. The dynamics and tempo indications were scrupulously followed. The opening A's were clear and the tuba's pedal point entrance at number 13 seemed an overtone to the A's that preceded it: something I'd never thought about before. The climactic moment at six before 26 was shattering: the cymbal's plates were crashed, all right! In the Second Movement, there was a decrease in dynamic in the violins and violas at bars 6 and 7, the better to throw the reeds' solo into relief at bar 8. The Horns' stopped tones were very clear and I'm sure the bells were raised as directed (by all required to do so) whenever the direction appeared. The Third Movement's opening contrabass solo was played beautfully by Edwin Barker; and the "Mit Parodie" at number 6 which always sounds to me like Klezmer music, was appropriate jaunty. The Fourth Movement displayed again the brasses' great form, in the passages calling for forte to increase to fortississimo in two bars. At one before 6, the First Horn's high F concert was very clear, which I've rarely heard in other performances. The one mishap occured at that incredible modulation from E flat to D major with the lufpause: one before 34. A trumpet made a false entry, worse luck! Other than that, this was a performance for the ages. At 4 before 56 "Triumphal", the Horns again were respelendent. I'm sure they were standing, if not, I'm sure they had the bells up at what always sounds to me like the passage that inspired Mana-Zucca to write "I Love Life." I thought I was familiar with Mahler's First Symphony, but Christoph Eschenbach proved me a beginner. I even cried out "Listen to them play!" gleefully, though I'm the Medicare generation. I had tears in my eyes when it ended. If you have a chance to hear him conduct it with the National Symphony Orchestra --- or any other orchestra, for that matter, I would urge you to run not walk to that performance. I'd love to read what you think.

Thanks so much for the report from Tanglewood and Eschenbach's Mahler. TIM

P.S. Christolf Eschenbach had the orchestra set up the way I always prefer to hear: First violins on the left, contrabasses on the left, 'cellos adjacent to the First , then the violas, and Second Violins on the right. I'm so glad this seating plan is being used again. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra always follows that plan.

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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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