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The Eschenbach years begin

In Friday's Washington Post: The National Symphony Orchestra audience directs its attention to Eschenbach, by Anne Midgette.

Here's one thing I didn't mention in my review (linked above) of last night's concert: it did a pretty poor job of functioning as as opening night of the NATIONAL Symphony Orchestra, unless the nation in question was Germany. They did start with the Star-Spangled Banner (I've written about that practice before); but after that came Matthias Pintscher and Ludwig van Beethoven, led by Christoph Eschenbach. Not even an Austrian to leaven the mixture a bit.
(read more after the jump)

However -- and I am a little nervous about saying this in public -- when I thought about it, I found that I really didn't care that much. Yes, it would be great if we played more American music, and its absence last night only underlines how meaningless the word "National" actually is in the names of this city's orchestra and opera company. But after all, the NSO's last music director made a laudable effort to emphasize the "national" aspect, and I'm not sure it actually changed the profile of the institution. (One of the most common complaints I hear from readers about the Slatkin era concerns all that awful new music he did.)

I do think that new music needs champions, and I'm glad to see that Eschenbach will put his money where his mouth is in that regard (as Slatkin did). But as I prepared to mount the "Give us American music" soapbox, I felt a sense of weariness, and not just because I had just written a review at top speed at the end of a very long day. Look: what I want to hear is interesting music, good music, music someone cares about. Eschenbach offered a personal view of a piece he likes, and it was the strongest performance of the night. I think that's a lot better than compelling the man to play something he's less excited about simply because we have to have an American piece on the program.

That's my two cents. But I would love to hear what others think. Should the National Symphony have included an American work on its opening program? Should Eschenbach be forced to do American works? Should the NSO have hired an American music director? Do we need to stay consistently focused on this particular message?

By Anne Midgette  | October 1, 2010; 5:04 AM ET
Categories:  Washington, local reviews  
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I've never thought that the NSO had to play American music anymore than, say, the Cleveland Orchestra has to play the music of Ohio composers. Agreed, it's lovely to hear some American composers mixed in with the Europeans. But as we're getting to know Eschenbach, I like hearing the music that he's passionate and excited about. He's an exceptionally gifted musician and seems to connect with the orchestra. It doesn't seem useful to talk about what he's not (American) when it feels beside the point to making wonderful music. I'd rather focus on how well the symphony responded to him, and how rapt the audience looked last night while watching him. We're in for an exciting run!

Posted by: JenniferLDC | October 1, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Well, the NSO performs at the Kennedy Center, and merged with the Center in 1986. The original National Cultural Center Act from 1958 calls for the Kennedy Center Board to "present classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance, and other performing arts from the United States and other countries." And Congress still provides annual funding, although the KC says that's mostly for building upkeep while programming is funded through ticket sales and private donations. Still, I think the facts create an obligation for the NSO, as a constituent of the Kennedy Center, to take its obligation to present American music seriously.

Side point -- I find an interesting parallel in modern FM radio. Many have bemoaned the death of independent radio stations on the dial, and the increasing domination of large networks (Clear Channel etc.) that may use a central D.J. to distribute the same playlist nationwide. Under those circumstances, it's harder for local bands to get airplay. In Canada, the government -- being fearful of American cultural domination -- has imposed Canadian-content percentage requirements on TV and radio broadcasters. While the effect is disputed, my own experience leads me to believe that their local performers have been helped by the rule.

Leaving aside legalities, I think listeners enjoy hearing content that is "local." Growing up in suburban Buffalo, I think I paid extra attention when hearing locally-produced music (of all genres, classical and otherwise) and hoped those artists did well. Perhaps it's because I felt an innate connection to them as individuals that made me feel a greater affinity for their work... and if that's true for me, then it may be more likely to impact the more "casual" listener attending an NSO concert only on occasion. And in terms of classical music, the whole United States could be viewed as "local," particularly in a field whose greatest historical masterpieces (which still account for large chunks of the concert season) are pretty much all European. If the Kennedy Center -- actually built by Congress to present music "from the United States and other countries" -- won't stand up for American music, then who will?

To be clear, I'm not advocating for performances of ostensibly "inferior" music just because it happens to be American. Rather, I think the Kennedy Center (and the NSO) have a special obligation to identify, present and/or commission the best of American music -- for example, when Slatkin & the Choral Arts Society co-commissioned "Missa Latina" from Roberto Sierra a few years back.

As for last night, I think Eschenbach gets a pass -- he's a native German speaker and is allowed to make his own imprint on the first night. But as things go on, I'll be sad if I don't occasionally hear (or hear about) the NSO doing some "local" music from my American community.

Posted by: dss16 | October 1, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

From a player's standpoint, the Maestro should program his passions - this without criticism. A great flexible ensemble, as the NSO, will feed off this energy. There are a number of worthy guest conductors who could handle any American premiere. If the Maestro chooses not to participate in the "National" course, there ought to be recourse. Washington audiences have not seen this kind of passion since Rostropovich left. It is a very exciting time for newcomers and veterans alike.

Posted by: Honigberg | October 1, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I like the idea of having the NSO focus on American work, but when they hired Maestro Eschenbach, that ship sailed for me. I do not want to hear this man, with his wealth of musical experience and rich European roots muddling through Bernstein's Mass. As commented earlier, he should play to his passion and bring a world class quality and reputation to our NSO. That is what he is best suited to do. More Mahler, please - let's do an American Mahler Cycle in DC!

Posted by: BobFV1 | October 1, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I think this is an interesting issue. No major classical orchestra today can exist without playing the old favorites...Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky...I think that as a cultural institution, it is the job of the symphony orchestra to help introduce GOOD new music. There are a lot of American composers who are writing new works. Just as we don't play all of the music of every German composer, every American composers' pieces will not rise to "timeless" status. A good balance of the old standards and new works is ideal.
Remember, even though Maestro Eschenbach is the music director, he doesn't conduct EVERY concert. There are plenty of opportunities for guest conductors, who may be better at that particular style of music, to present newer works with the NSO.

Posted by: batterie | October 1, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

A propos of memorable performances of the National Anthem, one of the most compelling ever comes after Jan Peerce, the Westminster Choir, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, sing Verdi's Hymn of the Nations, which includes the French, Italian and English anthems. When this was filmed for the Office of War Information in December 1943 (just six months after Mussolini was overthrown), Toscanini went directly into the US Anthem (@6:02). It is incredibly moving and powerful.This long-missing film was rediscovered and restored at the Library of Congress in the 1980s. The film was shown prior a Cathedral Choral Society performance of the Verdi Hymn of the Nations in 1993 at Washington National Cathedral.

Posted by: choralsociety | October 2, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse

I think there are few things more excruciating that the obligatory-new-piece sandwiched into a program of old favourites to try and sell it. I forget which conductor it was, but who used to do his programs listing just the pieces, not the order of them, so that when there was a new piece the audience couldn't avoid it by linger at the bar or stepping out early?

I think a new repertoire is important, but it has to be a committed part of programming, not born of obligation.

Posted by: ianw2 | October 2, 2010 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Here's my two cents. The National Symphony Orchestra is national because it's located in our nation's capital. It should have nothing to do with the music it selects to play.

I am proud that Eschenbach has taken the reins and look forward to him advancing the NSO as a world-class organization. To select American works exclusively, or even a majority of the time, would undermine these efforts.

Posted by: davesteadman | October 4, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Like others here, I'd prefer Eschenbach select repertoire that he's skilled at conducting, rather than American pieces for the sake of choosing an American work. But I also hope he'll look for American pieces which fit his sensibilities, and that he'll use his joint position as music director of the Kennedy Center to help promote American music. Last season's John Adams festival was terrific; I'd love to see more of the same.

Posted by: JohnCD | October 4, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Eschenbach was music director of two American orchestras before coming to the NSO, so I am sure he accumulated a list, perhaps not so big, of American works that he conducted during these 16-17 years. I, for example, seem to remember that he championed the music of Jennifer Higdon in Philadelphia (please correct if my memory fails.) So, by judiciously choosing among these works, plus selecting new ones - like the Peter Lieberson premiere he will conduct later this season - he'll have a respectable repertoire of American music.

As for the concert, it was indeed exciting. No, it was not by far the most technically assured even by NSO standards, but how refreshing to hear a conductor who is not afraid of changing the tempi in the middle of a movement, and to hear an Adagio movement that is actually an Adagio, not Allegretto.

And it was a better concert than that of the Vienna Philharmonic on Thursday where Nikolaus Harnoncourt destroyed Smetana's Ma Vlast with tempi that would have made Celibidache proud, but of course, Celi knows how to phrase (I am listening to his Vltava right now.) And while I praised Eschenbach for the changing of tempi, this is because they seem natural, at least for me. With Ha! Non Coeur! they seem downright strange, not least in the finale of Sarka, where he paused for like a second before allowing the trombones to enter - and they had their one sloppy moment of the night.

There was of course some marvelous playing, and it was good to see Albena Danailova in the orchestra. But I can't for nothing in the wolrd figure out how come the Vienna Philharmonic never invited Scherchen, Kempe, or Silvestri to conduct any of their concerts, but regularly works with this screaming skull.

(The VPO indeed recorded with Kempe and Silvestri, but they never conducted the orchestra in concerts.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 5, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

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