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Michael Lodico
Ionarts, June 2012

This week the National Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Christoph Eschenbach presented a program of repertoire being prepared for their Americas Tour (June 13 to 26). At the close of Eschenbach’s second season as Music Director, the orchestra has many new faces and a fresh sound, thanks to Eschenbach’s active audition involvement and aggressive recruitment process to replace petrified wood. During Friday night’s concert, Eschenbach demanded that the orchestra take his sometimes unpredictable path through pieces by Berlioz, Lalo, and Tchaikovsky, yet following every stern look came a praising look of trust-building thanks.

Berlioz’s youthful Overture to Le carnaval romain offered colorful opportunities for winds and was a nice primer to Lalo’s famed Cello Concerto with soloist Claudio Bohórquez, who has had a long collaboration with Eschenbach. Bohórquez played with a darkly hued tone that was rounded around the edges, somewhat reminiscent of gut strings, and remarkably even throughout his instrument’s range. The Lalo concerto is pleasingly similar to Mendelssohn, yet with an improvisatory gaiety. A wandering cello line would often be opposed by punctuated repeated motifs by the orchestra. This contrasting orchestration technique allowed Bohórquez to be heard clearly without having to force his sound, although sometimes notes on his highest string were over or under pitch.

Eschenbach gave focus to the expansive E minor starkness of the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 that was seemingly closer to Adagio than its labeled Andante. It felt as if Eschenbach were trying to make the point of how bizarre it is that Tchaikovsky composed the beginning of this work so sadly, as if throwing up a white flag to Beethoven’s towering Fifth Symphony. The rest of the opening movement (Allegro con anima) continued to be expansively flexible, ranging from flaccid to aggressive at the calculated whim of Eschenbach, who was seemingly testing the reflexes and obedience of his orchestra. He conducted the Valse lightly in one and dared the orchestra to see how truly softly they could play, giving the splendid horn soloist plenty of breadth for expressive playing in the second movement. The outcome of these demands led the orchestra to play together with intention and meaning. This incited the grateful audience to a wild ovation, which Eschenbach rewarded with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Thunder and Lightning Polka as an encore. © 2012 Ionarts

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