« Kristin Chenoweth casts spell in concert for Hippodrome Foundation | Main | Stellar mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens marks her 99th birthday »

June 11, 2012

Eschenbach, NSO cap season with searing account of Tchaikovsky's Fifth

Tchaikovsky sure got a workout over the weekend.

While his Violin Concerto was undergoing impulsive, idiosyncratic treatment from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg in season-closing performances with the Baltimore Symphony, the composer's Symphony No. 5 was being given an extremely intense approach from conductor Christoph Eschenbach in his season finale with the National Symphony.

Both interpretations would have distressed listeners used to more mainstream choices of tempo and phrasing. I can't imagine anyone ending up feeling neutral about either -- and that's a good thing, surely.

Eschenbach's version of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Friday night at the Kennedy Center was notable, above all, for the way the conductor ratcheted up its soulful, surging qualities.

Slow parts were extra slow, fast bits extra fast, lyrical passages extra passionate, climactic spots extra forceful. (I was reminded more than once of Rostropovich's approach to this music then he led the NSO way back when.)

There was something very personal about this performance, a sense that ...

Eschenbach was living the music as he shaped it. This came through with particularly compellingly impact in the second movement, as the mood shifted from tender to troubled.

The conductor's elongated phrases heated the tension to an extraordinary degree as the music crested, and he had the orchestra with him every note of the way, pouring out a deep, dark tone. To say it was almost unbearable is in no way a complaint. This was edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it was thrilling.

The waltz movement was taken at a spacious pace, accentuating the slightly bittersweet character. The finale had a telling weightiness even when the pulse quickened. Eschenbach, it seems, agrees with those who feel there is more to this sweeping, major-chord affirmation than meets the ear, a layer of doubt or illusion.

The rapport between conductor and orchestra was impressive to hear throughout the Tchaikovsky. So was the lushness of the strings, the vibrancy of the woodwinds and (a few minor exceptions aside) the clarity and bite of the brass.

Things clicked, too, at the start of the evening in a propulsive, yet always lyrical, charge through Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" Overture.

In between the two repertoire standards came a less often encountered item, Lalo's Cello Concerto, which last appeared on an NSO program more than two decades ago. It's a piece that strives a little too hard to be bold and meaty at times, but with an overriding elegance and flashes of atmospheric color that carry the day.

Claudio Bohorquez, a cellist with Peruvian and Uruguayan roots who will join the NSO on its Latin American tour that starts this week, was the persuasive soloist. His burnished tone and refined phrasing had the music singing nicely, while Eschenbach encouraged supple, colorful support from the ensemble.

Orchestras about to go on tour typically try out their encores on the hometown crowd first, so this concert had one -- a fun dash through the "Thunder and Lightning" Polka by Strauss.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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.
View the Artsmash blog

Baltimore Sun coverage
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop
Famous faces in classical music
Sign up for FREE entertainment alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for nightlife text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Weekend Watch newsletter
Plan your weekend with's best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV picks and more delivered to you every Thursday for free.
See a sample | Sign up

Most Recent Comments
Stay connected