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NSO's new director offers varied opening night

Edited to add: In Monday's Washington Post: Audience enthusiastically greets imperfect NSO opening gala, by Anne Midgette

Two pianists took the keyboard on Saturday night. Sitting side by side at the massive Steinway, Christoph Eschenbach, the new music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Lang Lang, the superstar pianist from China, played four-hand arrangements of two movements from Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” the first one tender, the second, antic, with leaps of finger and wrist that set the audience giggling.
(read complete review after the jump)

The performance was an encore at the National Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening gala at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. It signalled some new beginnings. For one: the new music director of the NSO and the Kennedy Center can make music in a number of ways with his orchestra and soloists. Live chamber music is slated to become an occasional part of the “AfterWords” post-concert discussion sessions after Eschenbach’s performances (starting October 7), and on October 8 he will join the violinist Christian Tetzlaff and some NSO musicians in a free all-Beethoven concert at the Millennium Stage. For another: the new conductor comes with a roster of big-name friends. Lang Lang is one; another is the soprano Renée Fleming, who also performed at the gala, and who also gave an encore with Eschenbach at the piano, Strauss’s tear-jerking song “Morgen.”

For a third: the most exciting part of the evening, musically, involved the piano. It’s hard to tell how to interpret that one yet.

Galas are about festivity and fun; and with all of the delights offered on Saturday night, one should be charitable about the fact that the music-making itself was a little uneven. Was part of it opening-night nerves? Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” is a veritable calling-card for Fleming, but on Saturday, it fell curiously flat. The soprano drew a laugh at her entrance when she did a stagey double-take upon seeing that the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, was wearing a green gown almost identical in shade to her own; she then (good-naturedly) mimed storming off stage in a huff. But the first song, “Frühling,” lacked sparkle. Fleming sang with commitment and honesty, but seemed a little off her game. Even in the beautiful arcing phrases of the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen,” where her voice followed the lead of Bar-Josef’s violin, her voice seemed not quite centered, a little hard to hear (though she hit her stride in her first-half encore, Strauss’s orchestral song “Cäcilie”). Eschenbach, perhaps, is still getting to know the acoustic properties of this hall; certainly the balances needed work.

The orchestra certainly sounded happy to have him, playing with a lot of heart. They didn’t always sound sure quite where he wanted them to go. Music by the other Strauss, Johann Jr., opened the two halves of the program -- “Fledermaus” to start, the “Kaiserwalzer” after intermission -- and Eschenbach approached them with looseness and the appearance of fun. But his beat was a little too loose; and his approach was so episodic that each piece was full of starts and stops, momentary regroupings as the orchestra found its way into the next section, making each piece seem a little longer and less sparkly than need be. Luminous, though, was the solo playing of David Hardy, the NSO’s principal cellist, in the “Kaiserwalzer:” he played with such melting beauty that time stopped.

Out came Lang Lang, known for his showmanship as well as for his brilliance, and carried the day with a bravura performance of the Liszt concerto. Lang Lang’s deficits can include an overabundance of extraneous gestures that seemed designed to communicate how much the music means to him. His strengths include one of the greatest piano techniques in the world. He was showing his strengths on Saturday: few gestures, lots of remarkable playing of a piece that is both showy and poetical, and sounded very substantial in this reading. It was a pleasure to listen to him, and Eschenbach, in the role of collaborator (at which he excels), supported, accompanied, and sometimes -- in the cadenza -- simply listened right along with everyone else.

The audience received it all with the enthusiasm of a small town crowd welcoming someone from the big world outside. David Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center’s chairman (who has won a fund of goodwill for himself by donating $10 million to the center, including $5 specifically earmarked for the NSO), took the stage after intermission like a local mayor, listing individual thanks to the many people involved in the proceedings, and bringing Eschenbach out on stage for another, wholly extraneous, round of applause. Message to Eschenbach: We’re glad to have you. Now, show us your stuff. The regular season starts on Thursday with a new work by Matthias Pintscher and Beethoven’s Ninth, and that’s when Eschenbach’s tenure can really be said to begin.

By Anne Midgette  | September 26, 2010; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  Washington, local reviews, news  
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