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January 30, 2012

Austro-German feast from Eschenbach, NSO; Jorg Widmann dazzles in debut

After a long period schedule conflicts (and the occasional fatigue) this season, I finally got a chance to catch up the the National Symphony Orchestra and its brilliant music director Christoph Eschenbach over the weekend. It gave me quite a high.

Eschenbach cooked up an Austro-German feast that mixed standards -- Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, Schubert's Symphony No. 9 -- with a fascinating dose of new music by Munich-born composer and clarinetist Jorg Widmann, who was also the soloist in the concerto.

Widmann's "Armonica," from 2006, has a prominent part for the glass armonica, that ethereal instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin.

The device provides not only sonic interest here, but also a way for the composer to treat the rest of the orchestra. Waves of sound emerge, gradually, pulsate and dissipate.

In addition to the exotic flavor of the armonica, the orchestra is enhanced by such unexpected instruments as ...

water gongs and accordion (it makes its presence felt initially from just the soft breath of the bellows alone). The harp, too, is effectively used, adding unexpected coloring at one point from its highest reaches.

The net effect is a fascinating harmonic haze that takes its time unfolding and makes its points with subtle inference.

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, Eschenbach drew a sensitive performance from the NSO. Christa Schonfeldinger was the compelling armonica soloist.

(One of the most famous and effective applications of armonica is in the original mad scene from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." In March, Baltimore Concert Opera will have an armonica for its "Lucia" performances, a nice touch of luxury for a company that otherwise uses only piano accompaniment.)

Widmann's performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was a marvel of silken tone, eloquent legato phrasing and seemingly impossible breath support. The solo playing fully matched the sublime character of the score, each phrase sculpted with a painter's sensibilities.

Eschenbach's second-nature partnering ensured a beautiful response from the orchestra, which produced its own impressive glow to complement that emanating from the extraordinary clarinetist.

Schubert's Ninth Symphony received a performance that had a truly majestic feeling, but never seemed pompous or blatant in its effect. Eschenbach applied his distinctive stamp to every phrase, every tempo, and had the musicians responding as if they had all lived for years with those ideas and ideals.

There were so many extraordinary touches along the way, moments when the conductor's slightest nuance made the familiar freshly invigorating or deeply moving -- extra weight to the most dramatic chords and a little extra space between them to let them register; exquisite gradations of dynamics; a tender lingering over the curve in a melodic line.

When he reached the prolonged silence in the second movement, Eschenbach made it feel incredibly profound with suspense and import. You could have heard a pin drop in the concert hall -- no finer sign of audience involvement.

Throughout, the NSO sounded technically firm and expressively alive, from the violas singing out poetically in the first movement introduction to the brass vibrantly underlining the dramatic release of the finale.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

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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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