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Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony

Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony

I know I should avoid such a cheesy adjective, but the word I keep thinking of to describe the

's concert on Friday is "heavenly."

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That covers the program itself -- Webern's subtly rapturous "Im sommerwind"; Golijov's radiant orchestration of four Schubert songs dealing with images of love, longing, peace, and a moonlit "holy night"; Mahler's gentle, nostalgic Symphony No. 4, with its final movement depicting a child's view of celestial pleasures. What an extraordinarily imaginative, absorbing combination of repertoire.

I must say there was also something really quite "heavenly" about this Kennedy Center performance, too. The NSO's compelling music director Christoph Eschenbach was in his element here. I haven't come across many conductors who care so much about soft dynamics, who can get an orchestra to go beyond the normal range of pianissimo to touch another whole realm of delicacy. And this program gave him ample opportunity to demonstrate that sensitivity.

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The hushed opening and close of the Webern score, for example, proved magical as Eschenbach drew from the musicians exquisite nuances. The same sort of thing happened often during the concert -- a level of subtle expressiveness that communicated richly.

The fascinating Golijov-Schubert piece, titled "She Was Here," incorporates "Wandrers Nachtlied," "Nur wer di Sehnsucht kennt,""Dass sie hier gewesen," and "Nacht und Traume." Golijov has created a gorgeous orchestral song cycle. He preserves Schubert's original melodic lines while creating around them a shimmering orchestral fabric that connects the songs to our world in a new way.

The NSO enjoyed the distinct advantage of Dawn Upshaw as soloist. The soprano, a frequent collaborator with Golijov, gave the premiere of the work in 2008. Upshaw has long been one of the most incisive vocal artists on the scene (she has emerged quite triumphant from a bout with cancer a few years ago), and she  demonstrated great eloquence here, using her burnished low register to especially keen effect. Eschenbach had the NSO practically breathing with the singer.

In Mahler's Fourth, the violins occasionally lost tonal smoothness and a few brass and woodwind contributions could have used more finesse, but the orchestra's playing overall proved very impressive. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef took on the famous dual-instrument solos with elan.

In the finale, ...

Exquisite music-making from Eschenbach, Upshaw, National Symphony

Upshaw sang "Das Himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life") with a true sense of childlike wonder, spinning out a gleaming tone.

I confess to a fondness for the startling tempo-stretching that Willem Mengelberg adopted in his historic 1930s recording of Mahler's Fourth, especially in the opening movement. Of course, it's an approach I don't really expect to encounter in a concert hall (although a performance I heard in in Florida years ago conducted by James Judd came amazingly close). For his part, Eschenbach kept things relatively straightforward, rubato-wise, in that opening movement, but there was still plenty of charm and color.

He effectively tapped into the rustic color of the second movement and dug into the sublime poetry of the third most persuasively. Eschenbach saved his most distinctive and inspiring touches for the finale, taking the last verse of the song at a slower pace than typically encountered. That was beautiful enough, allowing Upshaw to underline the point of the words -- "There is no music on earth that can compare with ours" -- more richly.

But Eschenbach also had the subdued orchestral coda slowing even more, getting the players to produce another remarkable pianissimo. The last, deep note was held onto for what seemed, quite appropriately, like an eternity, all the while dissipating ever so gradually.

I don't mind telling you that I got a little misty-eyed hearing that long, slow fade and the equally telling silence that followed. This sort of thing just doesn't happen every day of concert-going. Like I said at the beginning: Heavenly.

PHOTO OF CHRISTOPH ESCHENBACH (by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman) COURTESY OF NSO; PHOTO OF DAWN UPSHAW (by Dario Acosta) COURTESY OF IMG ARTISTS

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