Ivan Fischer at the NSO
Tonight, Iván Fischer -- elfin, quirky, smart, unpredictable -- takes the podium for the last time as Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Fischer’s two-year tenure has been promising, uneven, and a little frustrating, if only because it’s a shame to see a conductor so full of ideas unable fully to implement them due to time constraints. Five or six programs a year is not enough to really make a big change in an orchestra. His whole tenure, furthermore, was overshadowed by the announcement of his successor, Christoph Eschenbach, whose appointment as the NSO’s music director as of September 2010 was made known a couple of weeks before Fischer’s first official concert as principal conductor in the fall of 2008. The orchestra, looking ahead to its next leader, didn’t quite seem to connect with Fischer during what amounted to a lame-duck reign.
(read more after the jump)
Fischer, certainly, has been a willing participant in the orchestra’s life. He led the NSO tour to Asia in June 2009, its first international tour in years; he went on the American residencies in Arkansas (2009) and West Virginia (2010). And he sought to provide programs with variety, a certain flair, and a taste of his native Hungary (where he still lives and leads the Budapest Festival orchestra): Leo Weiner’s “Serenade,” Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and “Wooden Prince” ballet were among the pieces the NSO performed for him.
His desire to make every program special -- “you have to think of what the audience wants,” he said in an interview before his accession -- dovetails with his own predilections as an experimenter, a tinkerer: every program is calculated to show something new. His forte is not leading the same thing night after night (as he was compelled to do on the Asia tour); the Dvorak Seventh Symphony, a highlight at its Kennedy Center performance, was sometimes listless in its reiterations on the Asia tour. Rather, he exults in probing, setting new goals for himself, his players, his listeners. He focuses on individual moments in the music, and examines them. You can almost hear him thinking, “What will happen if I try that?” Sometimes this question turns out to be too academic: for instance, the answer to “What will happen if I probe a by-the-book early-music approach?” was a Bach b minor mass conducted with mechanical adherence to the same tempo through the evening. (Some loved the result; I didn’t.)
Intellectual curiosity is one of Fischer’s hallmarks. But my sense is that he wasn’t at the NSO long enough or often enough to get the players fully to go along with him. The crackle and energy of his Budapest Festival Orchestra performances wasn’t always there with the NSO. And there was only so much he could do to improve the orchestra’s sense of ensemble. The strings can sound fantastic, and there have been some improvements in the winds, but precision is still a work in progress.
It’s a shame, because Fischer remains one of the more interesting conductors around, and he had a lot to bring to the NSO. He will, of course, continue to appear with the NSO: he returns next spring for a program of Paganini's violin concerto and Schumann's Third Symphony, showing his breadth and, probably, his flair. And tonight's concert of two Russian classics -- Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" -- offer a lot for him to sink his teeth into. But despite some very fine concerts over the last two years, his time in Washington smacks of a missed opportunity.
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