WASHINGTON, December 7, 2013 – The NSO opened its current series concert Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with an all German program that began with an all-Mozart first half and concluded with Johannes Brahms’ towering Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach, the program also featured a solo turn by the orchestra’s concertmaster, violinist Nurit Bar-Josef.
Thursday evening’s program opened on an unexpected and somber note. Maestro Eschenbach announced from the podium that the concert would begin not with the Mozart compositions that were to follow, but with Bach’s well-known, elegiac “Air on a G String,” which he requested to be followed not by applause but by a moment of silence dedicated to the memory of former South African President Nelson Mandela who had just passed away.
Word of Mandela’s death had just begun to hit U.S. wires in the late afternoon, and many in the audience audibly gasped in genuine sorrow and surprise as Mr. Eschenbach made his announcement of this still-breaking news before the orchestra performed the Air. Sadness persisted as it still does for many. But as always, the show must go on, and, after a brief, silent departure from the stage, Mr. Eschenbach began the orchestra’s scheduled program.
Opening the concert proper was a sprightly performance of Mozart’s energetic overture to his comic opera/singspiel “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”), which, sadly and ironically, was the still youthful composer’s penultimate masterpiece before succumbing to illness at the age of 35. The NSO was generally crisp, clear and on target, which helped to lighten the evening’s mood from the sad news that preceded it.
(In an odd coincidence, the Virginia Opera, in town at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, opened its first of two performances of “The Magic Flute” the following evening in Fairfax City, which allowed us to hear two performances in a row of this overture.)
After the overture, Nurit Bar-Josef appeared on stage with Mr. Eschenbach to perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218. This is a bright, sunny, youthful work—Mozart was just 19 when he composed it—and that’s essentially how the NSO and Ms. Bar-Josef approached it.
The performance itself was pleasant and correct, perhaps led astray a bit by this week’s fluttery barometer readings, as the soloist—pausing to re-tune her somewhat recalcitrant instrument after the first movement—briefly noted to the audience before proceeding. Even so, the music generally flowed evenly in the remaining movements, enhanced considerably by the beauty of Ms. Bar-Josef’s phrasing.
The concert concluded with a rousing, slightly eccentric performance of that late-Romantic German warhorse, Brahms’ towering Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. This reviewer, who first heard this work performed live ages ago by the Cleveland Orchestra with the legendary George Szell at the helm and perhaps still, albeit subconsciously, employs that performance as a sort of gold standard.
Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO generally took the symphony at a slower pace than this reviewer tends to prefer. Yet the sonority and precision of the brass often did recall the sheer perfection of the Cleveland brass section in the 1960s, a substantial plus for this massive German symphony that somehow seems cast in a classical, almost Mozartian mode save for its assertiveness and force.
Two unusual elements were prominent in this performance. We’ve noticed that when Mr. Eschenbach conducts the orchestra, he seems to have a particular rapport with the NSO’s energetic and still relatively new principal timpanist Jauvon Gilliam, often giving Mr. Gilliam significant prominence in certain musical passages when compared to the blend present in other orchestras.
In the Brahms 1st, this tendency proved to be a big plus, particularly in the symphony’s highly dramatic opening bars where the timpani’s relentless, hammering beat drives a relentless funeral march into the realm of high tragedy. Surely, this unusual opening was a dramatic surprise for audiences present at the symphony’s 1876 premiere.
Even today, there is no symphonic opening statement that’s anything like this one, and Mr. Gilliam drove the point home with great insistence and precision, effects he deployed elsewhere in the work wherever appropriate, adding considerably to the work’s over all dramatic effect.
The other notable element in Thursday’s performance was the occasional but highly notable prominence of the contrabassoon line. The contrabassoon is, generally speaking, one of those instruments you don’t often “hear” in a performance, although you’d miss it if it weren’t there. Its low, “super-bassoon” tone is generally employed to underline the woodwind and, on occasion, brass choirs in the orchestra, contributing heft and richness to the tone.
The NSO, however, now uses the more newfangled—and in our opinion—superior contraforte in the contrabass role. Richer and more stable than its predecessor, this instrument allows the contrabass line a bit more freedom to step forward. And the surprising prominence Mr. Eschenbach allowed the instrument during this performance gave a heftier and occasionally more sinister feel to those crucial passages where it was employed. It just sounded—different—and we confess we rather enjoyed the effect.
Despite the occasionally labored tempos in this performance, Mr. Eschenbach and the NSO still drove relentlessly toward the symphony’s final major key shift in the finale, made all the more dramatic by a flawless performance of this movement’s heroic French horn (“posthorn”) solo introduction, an unforgettable statement that utterly alters the symphony’s previously tension-filled mood into one of great celebration and joy.
No, it wasn’t Szell—who, interestingly, helped get Mr. Eschenbach launched on his conducting career. But it was a fresh and interesting reading of a symphony that’s heard so often it can sometimes seem hackneyed.
Rating: ** ½ (2 and ½ stars out of 4)
Tickets and information: This NSO program will be repeated one final time tonight, December 7 (8 p.m.), at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. For tickets ($10-85) and information, visit the NSO web site.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us section of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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