National Symphony offers soaring Strauss program with Eschenbach, Goerke, Relyea

Richard Strauss never lacks for attention, but the 150th anniversary of his birth this year offers a good excuse to get even more immersed in his brilliant music.

The National Symphony Orchestra has gone all out honoring the composer. A couple weeks ago, there was a sizzling semi-staged version of "Der Rosenkavalier" featuring an exceptional cast. Over the weekend, there was an all-Strauss program that included more opera -- the Recognition Scene from "Elektra" and the finale to "Salome." For us Strauss fans, heaven in a concert hall.


NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach was on the podium for both presentations, and that meant lots of expressive heat. He has a flair for sending Straussian phrases into flight, and for bending or stretching out a tempo to make the ride all the more fulfilling. Conductors with this kind of sensitivity and individuality are not exactly plentiful.

On Friday night before a far-from-full Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Eschenbach got things started with a highly vivid, involving account of "Don Juan" that showed off the orchestra nicely. Principal oboist Nicholas Stovall made exquisite contributions; the horns sailed through the big, famous theme; the strings poured on the steam.


The concert's other non-vocal selection, the "Dance of the Seven Veils" from "Salome," likewise hit home in a big way. Eschenbach drew out every sensual curve (aided by principal flutist Aaron Goldman's shimmering solos) and put an extra kick into the most propulsive passages.

Stepping in for an ailing Irene Theorin, soprano Christine Goerke proved to be a formidable Elektra.

She summoned enough volume to hold her own against the orchestral forces (Eschenbach rarely signaled for the NSO to hold it down), and she put a good deal of character into her phrasing. If intonation drooped a little here and there, and if a few notes lost firmness, this was still very impressive vocalism.

Bass-baritone John Relyea summoned a weighty, vibrant sound as Oreste and made every line count.

Goerke really hit her stride in the final scene from "Salome," using her gutsy low register to great advantage and riding the most impassioned melodic lines with sumptuous tone, all the while revealing a dynamic connection to the luxuriant text.

Eschenbach maintained terrific tension throughout and, as I just knew he would, stretched out the stunning music that follows Salome's pathetic kiss planted on the severed head of John the Baptist.

The broadening of the tempo at that point did not just make the lyricism extra-refulgent, but also meant that the orchestra could really lay on the terrifically dissonant chord that Strauss inserts to underline the depth of Salome's depravity.