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A profound Beethoven 9th is Eschenbach's parting gift to NSO

Christoph Eschenbach leads the National Symphony Orchestra, Choral Arts Society of Washington and soloists in Beethoven's Ninth at the Kennedy Center.
Christoph Eschenbach leads the National Symphony Orchestra, Choral Arts Society of Washington and soloists in Beethoven's Ninth at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman)

Christoph Eschenbach received two thunderous responses Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where he led his final performance as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The first ovation occurred before a note was sounded, when he walked onstage with Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter, who was ready to deliver some words of appreciation. Before she could start, however, the applause from the packed house grew in intensity, gradually turning into a standing O that continued for a good long while.

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The second affirmation from the crowd was more expected, but no less impressive — an instantaneous roar that erupted the moment the last note of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony evaporated in the hall. This standing O likewise went on and on.

No wonder. This was a profound interpretation, deeply thought and deeply felt, a genuine, humanity-embracing experience. (If you missed it, or want to re-live it, the concert was filmed and can be viewed free on Medici TV until Sept. 16.)

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Eschenbach's ideas about the Ninth do not conform to today's standard approaches to Beethoven, the sort informed (if not stifled) by the historical authenticity movement. I was reminded on Saturday of another free-thinker, Leonard Bernstein, in his last, wonderful decades, or a few other exceptional conductors from pre-musical-correctness eras.

Tempos set by Eschenbach were spacious, but the pulse never weakened. Phrases were given room to expand, nowhere more exquisitely than in the passage for vocal quartet toward the end of the "Ode to Joy." What the conductor's sculpting achieved there — aided by the radiant response of soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo J'Nai Bridges, tenor Joseph Kaiser and bass Soloman Howard — would alone have made this a memorable Ninth.

There was much, much more, including the way Eschenbach encouraged the NSO's superb principal timpani, Jauvon Gilliam, to unleash a nearly earth-shaking barrage in the first movement; the mix of charm and spice the conductor coaxed from the ensemble in the trio section of the scherzo; the sense of soul he brought to the Adagio; the way he balanced grandeur and intimacy, poetry and muscle in the finale.

Eschenbach's approach was very close to what I recall when he conducted the Ninth on the first NSO subscription program of his tenure in 2010, but with still more layers added. Note how sensitively he shaped the orchestral recitative that gives way to the famous "Ode to Joy" melody, for example, and the unearthly beauty he drew from the cellos and basses in their pianissimo statement of that theme.

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Also different this time was the NSO itself. Twenty players are new since Eschenbach started, for one thing. Over the past seven years, it seems to me a more polished, supple, expressive orchestra, qualities that came through here at every turn. The brass sounded fearless and tireless, the woodwinds colorful, the strings cohesive and nuanced.

As for the vocal side of the performance, Howard hit the spot in the opening solo with his burnished tone and rousing delivery of the exhortation to sing a joyful song. Kaiser's warm tenor and finely molded phrases likewise added greatly to the evening, as did the valiant Crocetto and the velvety-voiced Bridges (many a mezzo disappears into the sonic tapestry of this piece, but she held her own).

The Choral Arts Society of Washington, prepared by artistic director Scott Tucker, sang from memory and with keen attentiveness to dynamics and articulation. They sounded as if the words mattered dearly.

In a bit of full-circle, that choir was on hand seven years ago for Eschenbach's tenure-launching Beethoven Ninth (the late Norman Scribner was the artistic director then). In another resonance from that earlier performance, Eschenbach opened the program with a large-scale contemporary orchestral work — the composer was Matthias Pintscher then, Bright Sheng this time.

In "Zodiac Tales," commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra during Eschenbach's tenure as music director there (the score is dedicated to him), Sheng generates an adventurous sonic ride through various animals symbolized in Chinese astrology.

The NSO's confident, vivid performance found the expanded percussion section in terrific form, especially when providing momentum and weighty, vivid commentary in "The Rain God." The woodwinds were warm and lithe in "Three Lambs Under the Spring Sun," the strings sinewy in "The Elephant-Eating Serpent." Eschenbach drew a haunting response from the players in the slowly ebbing, almost Maherlian conclusion of "The Tomb of the Soulful Dog."

All in all, the concert provided a great wrap-up for Eschenbach. The power and individuality I heard on Saturday in that splendid Beethoven 9 — and two weeks earlier in his equally insightful account of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony — would not likely sway the persistent detractors of this extraordinary musician. But, judging by the audience reaction, I'd like to think I am not alone in viewing Eschenbach's tenure as an artistically worthy one.

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