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Fischer's finale with the NSO

In Saturday's Washington Post:

There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes the ideal orchestral conductor. Some prefer the pioneer: a musical thinker who champions living composers and unusual projects, like Esa-Pekka Salonen, the former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Others favor those who bring new energy to established tradition: take Manfred Honeck and Jaap van Zweden, the new and much-talked-about music directors of Pittsburgh and Dallas.

Ivan Fischer, who is concluding his two-year tenure as principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, is of the latter camp: European, with a restless intelligence, but with both feet planted firmly in the traditional repertory. His programs with the NSO have shown range, curiosity, and thought -- an ostensibly early-music approach to Bach; music from his native Hungary; a touch of opera – but they haven’t shown much interest in the present day. His last concerts in office show him in what’s been his best light in the past two seasons: alone with the orchestra, without soloists, in popular core repertory.

The final program (which will repeat Saturday at 8), all Russian, has broad appeal for orchestra lovers. It opens with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” big and colorful and awfully pretty, rife with instrumental solos, and ends with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” a once-scandalous and seemingly unplayable piece that’s turned into a cornerstone of the canon, firmly rooted in the ears, fingers and hearts of musicians and audiences. It was a showy program, even a show-off one. As if to underline the point, Fischer conducted the first piece from a pocket score, and the second piece, whose rhythms are fiendishly difficult and constantly changing, from memory.
(read more after the jump)

“Scheherazade” is not an obvious vehicle for a conductor to show off his smarts: it’s all about pretty and exotic, luxuriating in orchestral sounds. It’s an odd fit for Fischer, who is not much of a luxuriator. His is a mind that seizes on things with curiosity, examines them, leaps on to the next thing: it’s how he is in conversation, and it’s the way he makes music. There couldn’t be more of a contrast to, say, Gustavo Dudamel, who has a sensual streak a mile wide; Fischer, by contrast, is a quirky experimenter. Perhaps the reason he didn’t have a closer relationship to the NSO is that the NSO is an orchestra conditioned to like the big emotions, the heart on the sleeve: this was the approach of Mstislav Rostropovich, whom old hands in the orchestra still speak of in adoring tones, and it has often been the approach of Christoph Eschenbach, whose arrival in the fall the orchestra is eagerly awaiting.

But Fischer and the orchestra weren’t quite a match. Certainly Friday afternoon’s performance showed some of their best sides, particularly when it came to Fischer’s ferocious energy, which found a response in biting bass chords in the “Rite,” or in the way Dotian Levalier attacked her harp solo in the second movement of “Scheherazade,” asserting her instrument over a gentle wash of violins before pulling back into restraint. Fischer also has a quality of grace, a flair for the kind of gentle dance he found in the third movement of “Scheherazade;” his tendency to take very fast tempi abates enough, in this lyrical mode, to allow a way in to the music’s propulsive energy. Like many conductors who pride themselves on their intellect, Fischer is actually pretty instinctive in his music-making; but the NSO didn’t seem to trust him enough to want to accompany him through his changes of mood. Counterbalancing the high points of visceral excitement on Friday were passages that seemed mechanical, no more than feats of execution – from him and from the players.

The orchestra and Fischer may have had too little time together to establish any real bond: five or six programs a season. Still, it was clear that Fischer didn’t end up at the NSO with anything like the rapport he has with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded and has led for the last 25 years, and with whom he gives really exciting performances. Relationships are unpredictable, and matches that look good on paper don’t always have a spark; Fischer, evidently, wasn’t the ideal leader for the NSO. Still, this was a nice stirring way for the orchestra and Fischer to end their time together, with a program that got everyone’s blood moving, and went through the motions with a will and aplomb that led, at the end, to ovations.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 4, 2010; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews  
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Next: In performance: Nico Muhly at the Washington Chorus


Anne--while I agree that Fischer and the NSO weren't the best match, how can a relationship between leader and group prosper with very few performances each season? I think the NSO management could have devised a better plan over these past two years with Fischer at the helm.

I will miss him. I could always depend on him asking his orchestra to perform at the highest level. That is all he could do. He has such passion, but in a much more refined and mature manner than Dudamel.

Posted by: josh24 | June 4, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Before going Thursday night, I was not enthused about the program, both pieces being overly familiar to me, or so I thought. Scheherazade certainly was but Rite of Spring left me feeling that I was hearing a different version from the one I was familiar with. In pieces we have heard many times, we always seem to know what's coming next, what the next measure will sound like. But I did not have that reaction to the Rite of Spring. Yes, it was all familiar and sometimes I knew what was coming next, but not always. As for Scheherazade, it is a clever, beautiful, well constructed, interesting piece of music whose only fault seems to me to be that it is heard so much that it tends to fall into the background. Not so last night, but that is a different story.

I had the good fortune to hear this concert twice! First at a working rehearsal Thursday morning from the middle of the orchestra seats and Thursday night from the chorister seats behind and above the orchestra. I have always been curious about what the experience would be to be almost in the orchestra and we managed to get our tickets for Thursday night's performance changed from our usual obstructed view, first tier seats. There was a big difference. Being that close to the orchestra separates the sound and therefore I was able to hear different lines of the music individually whereas they are usually so blended that I have difficulty distinguishing them. The winds were all quite a bit louder from up there and the strings were a little more subdued. The brass, because they are usually aiming at the audience, were about the same fore and aft. We were sitting directly above Jauvon Gilliam and so the percussion was particularly pronounced and I confess I sort of like feeling my stomach rumble in sympathy witn bass drum. I would recommend that people take advantage of the availability of these seats and listen to a few concerts from there from time to time. Be forewarned though, you will be sitting on church pews with thin cushions. I suppose the idea is to keep us from slouching and looking slovenly to the rest of the audience. Also, one may presume that choirs are used to sitting on pews.

We thought that we would spend most of the concert watching Ivan Fischer, but found we were so interested in what the orchestra was doing that we paid him little attention. I will say that from that perspective, up on his podium, the conductor looks small and vulnerable. Perhaps this perception reflected our melancholy that this would be the last we would see him as principal conductor. We have liked him, his selections, and his conducting very much.

Summarizing, I had a grand time.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | June 5, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

“music from his native Hungary” …

Maestro Fischer let Washington, D.C. down, in my opinion, by not programming with the National Symphony Orchestra one of his fellow countryman Gyorgy Kurtág’s masterpieces “Grabstein für Stephan” for Guitar and Orchestra (1979, revised 1989) or “Concertante Op 42" for violin, viola, and orchestra (2003).

This was especially unfortunate as Gyorgy Kurtág (and his pianist wife Marta) were recently special guests of the Music Division of the U.S. Library of Congress, which commissioned a short world premiere from him earlier last year; during the same period that leading pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (a former season-long guest music curator at Carnegie Hall in NYC) championed other of Kurtág’s piano music at the Embassy of France. (Some years back, Washington and Baltimore’s own soprano-extraordinaire Phyllis Bryn-Julson championed Kurtag’s “Kafka Fragments” here at the Embassy of Hungary.)

Kurtág’s 2006 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition award winning “Concertante Op. 42” for violin, viola and orchestra was commissioned by the Leonie Sonning Foundation of Copenhagen for the Danish Radio Orchestra under Michael Schønwandt, and has been performed in Europe, Japan, and the United States – but it was not performed here in the Nation’s Capital under the National Symphony’s Hungarian Principal Conductor.

Here is a link to Gyorgy Kurtág’s “Grabstein für Stephan” for Guitar and Orchestra (8 minutes long) on YouTube:

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 7, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

PS. -- Last month, Classical WETA-FM broadcast the Beaux Arts Trio performing, at the Library of Congress, the world premiere of György Kurtág's "Music for Piano Trio."

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 7, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

josh24: You ask a great and unanswerable question about how well a conductor and orchestra can really do if they only have a handful of performances a season. Some conductors can make great things happen in just one or two concerts. Others have a more methodical, long-term approach. You could argue that to make a real difference, a conductor has to be able to make personnel changes (and I believe this is something that was important to Fischer in the original negotiations), but you could also say that Fischer had quite a bit of face time with the NSO, especially given the Asia tour in 2009. No question, though, about Fischer's passion and commitment.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 10, 2010 1:41 AM | Report abuse

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