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October 7, 2012

Like the Nats and Orioles, the NSO and BSO score home runs

The Nats and the Orioles aren't the only ones who have been doing impressive work lately.

Washington's orchestral team, the National Symphony, hit a couple right out of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Friday night. On Saturday, the Baltimore Symphony did the same at Meyerhoff Hall. In both cases, the coach had a lot to do with the results.

The combination of keen intellect and emotional warmth that Christoph Eschenbach brings to the NSO podium as music director could be felt at every turn in a program built around a theme of intense love.

The tragic passions at the heart of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and two Tchaikovsky tone poems, "Romeo and Juliet" and "Francesca da Rimini," were balanced by the haunting beauty of the late Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs."

The latter carries its own tragic layer. The composer set five of Pablo Neruda "One Hundred Love Sonnets" to music expressly for his wife, revered mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. She died from breast cancer in 2006, a year after performing the premiere; Lieberson died from lymphoma in 2011.

It is impossible ...

not to feel a shiver hearing the first lines of the last song in this subtly textured work: "My love, if I die and you don't/my love, if you die and I don't/ let's not give grief an even greater field." This poem inspired the composer to fashion a melodic line of particular eloquence and an orchestral fabric that generates a haunting glow.

Kelley O'Connor, who worked on the songs with Lieberson, was the NSO's admirable soloist, attentive to nuances of text and communicating intimately. A memorable example came in the third song -- the way she subtly underlined the emotion of the plea "No estes lejos de mi un sola dia" ("Don't go far from me for a single day"); and the deep tonal beauty she summoned to caress the slowly repeated word at the end, "muriendo" ("dying").

Eschenbach proved a supple, attentive collaborator and drew from the orchestra radiant playing. The slow fade-out of that third song and the shimmering colors of the subtly Latin rhythm-inflected fourth were achieved with particular sensitivity. The orchestra's final sounds in the work seemed to envelop the hall in a gentle embrace.

The rest of the concert reconfirmed Eschenbach's distinctive musicality, starting at the top with the "Tristan" Prelude and Liebestod, which he took at exquisitely slow tempos, without letting the tension sag. You just don't find conductors willing to choose tempos like that every day. This is what I call rapture.

The orchestra's playing, alas, was somewhat ragged here, especially in the opening few minutes. But the musicians may have had trouble focusing, what with the rude cell phone and, even worse, positively Vesuvian eruptions from innumerable coughers in the audience.

The second half of the program, devoted to the pair of Tchaikovsky sound-dramas, yielded intense rewards.

Again, the conductor offered decidedly individualistic approaches, filled with telling gradations of tempos and, in particular, dynamics (Eschenbach never met a pianissimo he couldn't bring down an extra shade). He had the famous love theme in "Romeo and Juliet" surging mightily; his spacious shaping of the coda carried great emotional weight.

Eschenbach plunged into "Francesca da Rimini" with equal conviction. It's common to hear this work denigrated as inferior Tchaikovsky, but I suspect that's because most people don't encounter performances that are as alive with impassioned character as this one. The NSO sounded splendid, with sumptuous strings, colorful winds, fearless brass and percussion.

Friday's encounter gave me such a rush I did not expect to experience another one anytime soon. Darned if I didn't.

On Saturday, the BSO offered one of those fun sleeper concerts -- ho-hum on paper, visceral in person.

Two German artists, making their BSO debuts with this program, impressed greatly -- conductor Markus Stenz, who proved to be a galvanizing presence; and violinist Kolja Blacher, who brought a mellow Strad and abundant musicianship with him.

The orchestra was reduced in size for the concert to match the works at hand with historically appropriate forces. The smallest group performed "Chaos," the opening movement of a 1730s "choreographed symphony, "The Elements," by Jean-Fery Rebel, one of the more obscure baroque composers.

As Haydn would do decades later at the start of his oratorio "The Creation," Rebel used unsettled harmonies to depict the diffuseness of nature before things took their present shape (the opening dissonance is sort of like a baroque version of the Big Bang Theory). Stenz had the musicians churning nicely through Rebel's unsettled waters, articulating colorfully as they went.

Schumann's infrequently performed Violin Concert gets a bad rap. It is supposed to reflect the composer's declining mental state and represent a pale reflection of what he might have achieved. Oh, please. It's a serious, thoughtfully constructed work that, in the slow movement, achieves a rare, bittersweet beauty that captures Schumann at his most personal and affecting.

Blacher played the heck out of the concerto, not just handling technical matters with aplomb, but digging into the melodies with a dark beauty of tone and phrasing full of lyrical vibrancy. Stenz and the BSO backed the soloist fully.

With Beethoven's "Eroica," the program moved into war horse territory. But there was not a single routine thing about the performance. It was one of the most exciting accounts of this symphony I've heard in years (too bad there was such a modest turnout).

Stenz combined a period instrument outlook -- modest ensemble size, a tamping down of vibrato, generally fleet tempos -- with what came close to old-fashioned romanticism. The conductor never just switched the metronome on, but allowed a good deal of rhythmic flexibility. Phrases spoke with an involving directness and carried an electric charge, as much in the sobering funeral march as in the whirlwind scherzo.

Stenz made a thrice-familiar score newly gripping -- this should be every musician's goal each time at bat, but it just doesn't work out that way very often -- and he clearly bonded with the BSO.

The players had an on-the-edge-of-their-seats look you don't see from them too often onstage (they applauded Stenz as heartily as the audience after the performance). Each section revealed solid strengths; even the subtlest solos emerged with vivid personality.

The reason some of us keep going to concerts, rather than stay home with our favorite recordings, is for the possibility of being shaken up with white-hot music-making. Being shaken two nights in a row was a very cool experience.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, 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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