Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach (Eric Brissaud / February 3, 2014)

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall was packed Saturday night for the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of a 1946 masterwork by Paul Hindemith, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

OK, the place was packed because the first half of the program was devoted to Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the ever-popular, ever-youthful Joshua Bell as soloist (I'm surprised he has not yet been dubbed "The People's Violinist," a la "The People's Diva").

What counts is that the great majority of the audience remained after intermission to hear the rare and worthy Hindemith score, which he called a Requiem "For those we love."

What also counts is that the NSO delivered an arresting performance, guided with great sensitivity by music director Christoph Eschenbach and featuring a stellar vocal lineup -- baritone Matthias Goerne, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

Commissioned to commemorate FDR and based on Walt Whitman's elegy to the fallen Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" packs a lot of thickly-layered imagery into its one-hour length. This is not an easy-listening experience.

There is a lot to absorb, starting with the sheer length and richness of Whitman's text -- more than 2,200 words. Hindemith sets those words in a style that, while fundamentally lyrical, speaks in an intricate language that can be difficult to grab onto.

But there is great integrity to the structure of the Requiem, remarkable clarity in the textures, and, above all, a powerful directness of expression. Eschenbach seized on these qualities to fashion a tense musical drama that became more and more profound as the performance unfolded.

The orchestral opening was superbly shaped, building up to a tremendous outpouring of emotion. Subsequent passages calling for instrumental power, such as that triggered by the line "the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang," were unleashed with hall-shaking power. (Hindemith surely learned a thing or two from the Verdi Requiem in terms of explosive force).

Subtle, introspective portions of the piece received equal attention and care from the conductor. The moment when "Taps" emerges gently from the orchestral fabric, for example, hit home beautifully. And, since Eschenbach knows how to get musicians to make every second of a decrescendo meaningful, the fade at the end was exquisitely achieved. The long silence that followed was not just welcome, but necessary.

(Some folks bristle at such enforced silence and label it an affectation -- Eschenbach typically keeps his arms raised forever, and takes another eternity to lower them, when he conducts a weighty piece that closes softly -- but I have no problem with it.)

The baritone gets the lion's share of solos in the Requiem. Goerne brought to the challenging assignment a warm and finely molded tone, not to mention intimate and deeply communicative phrasing.

With just an occasional trace of German accent, he got to the very heart of the poetry, reaching particularly poignant heights in "O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved." Goerne's rapt, pianissimo singing of such lines as "holding the hands of companions" and in the work's final stanza proved quite affecting.

DeYoung's luxurious sound gave added beauty to her stylish singing. And the chorus, prepared by artistic director Scott Tucker, sounded terrific throughout, maintaining admirable clarity of articulation and a cohesive tonal blend. The NSO likewise excelled; there was great character, not just technical polish, in the playing. 

I do wish there had been supertitles for the performance. Trying to follow along with a program book in weak lighting gets awfully tedious. And not the best way, I suspect, to help an audience connect with such an off-the-beaten path work.

As for the program's on-the-main-path item, that yielded rewards, too. By this point in his career, Bell must have played the Mendelssohn concert three billion times, but you'd never know it. True, the violinist sounded a bit blase, even tonally anemic, at the very start. In short order, though, Bell's expressive gears kicked in and he was soon producing phrases of almost Tchaikovsky-level tension, passion and sonic richness.

Eschenbach had the orchestra doing the same; the close of the first movement had great sweep. Unsentimental sweetness abounded in the Andante. And the violinist added delectable wit and a wealth of dynamic contrast to the finale, all the while subtly partnered by conductor and orchestra.