National Symphony Orchestra: New Beginnings, Again

With its gala performance on Saturday night, the National Symphony Orchestra opened its 2010-2011 season under the new leadership of Christoph Eschenbach.  Not unfamiliar to Washington audiences, given his trial runs over the prior season and his Philly-stine reputation that precedes him, Eschenbach has officially arrived to modest fanfare, a gigantic salary, and a donation last week specifically to cover it.  More about that later.

On paper, the program was idyllic:  he would be joined by two celebrity artists of international repute whom he can claim to have "discovered," Renée Fleming and Lang Lang.  And the repertoire would include waltzes, in tune with Eschenbach's heritage along with the evening's aspiration to be a gala celebration.  Also on the program, the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss -- so sacrosanct a work (certainly to me) that it transcends analysis -- would be sung by Ms. Fleming, who has done her time singing Strauss.  And of course, Lang Lang can polish the keys with just about anything, but there could be few better matches than Liszt for the pianist's outsize stage personality.

What happened, though, was less than an idyll.  After Eschenbach's reading from Die Fledermaus, which cannot as a light overture arouse strict scrutiny from even the strictest (certainly not me), onward came Richard Strauss and his ethereal dirge.  Delicate as it is to go there after the comic sway of Die Fledermaus, the transition went worse because of, no joke, a diva joke.  When Fleming reached center-stage, she shook the hand of the conductor along with, as is custom, the concertmaster.  But Nurit Bar-Josef was wearing a silk evening gown in a perfectly matching shade of green, and Fleming twice-over jokingly hesitated, pretending to head back for a costume change.  Then, within moments, she began to sing about death.

OK then.  Well, a few things.  First, for all the comic opportunity to be mined from this hopefully unplanned sketch, no one could have been more familiar with the tone of the ensuing work than Fleming, who should have known better.  But even if we pretend it never happened (and it is possible to be objective), the resulting performance did not play to her strengths.  To take issue with the nearly universal respect that Fleming commands is credible -- she is taking care of that herself as she forays into indie pop, poorly -- and though she has pulled off bravura readings of Strauss in passages of coloratura from, say, Der Rosenkavalier, the Four Last Songs represent another side of the composer that trace to his deep affection for, and influence from, Richard Wagner.  His is a sound world that requires heft, an "evocation of the gods," and more than just a pretty face.  The opportunity will arrive next month to hear from Strauss' canon another work of such Wagnerian proportions, and though that diva will be surgically trimmed down from her better-known formative years, Deborah Voigt possesses an innate capacity to carry Salome over the voluminous orchestrations characteristic of Strauss when he is chasing after Wagner, rather than Mozart.  As for the Four Last Songs, you can do no better than the privilege of hearing it done right under the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, with Cheryl Studer giving it her all.  In that context, you will not hear "September"'s transcendent horn solo fall flat as it did on Saturday, though Bar-Josef played "Going to Sleep"'s violin solo in a way that rivaled the recorded Sinopoli performance, and any other I've heard.

The gala audience, in any case, applauded anxiously between all the songs, roused perhaps in the opportunity to attend Fleming's celebrity that is also the classy face of Rolex ads, and when she announced from the stage that she would be singing Strauss' matrimonial Cäcilie for her encore, the first-floor patrons in particular let out a hearty laugh.  I have no idea why.

Next to the scene (after a little more waltzing) was Lang Lang, who for the first time I can remember was not wearing a velvet dinner jacket.  As you would expect, there was much waving of hands from the bench, no matter the actual conducting a few feet higher, and his Liszt flew by with technical precision and heart to match.  Most endearing of all was the precious opportunity to hear the concert pianist joined by his mentor on the same bench to play duets of Debussy; although Slatkin was a crafty pianist himself, this is a conductor who whose tenure will deliver virtuosic piano performances at a level worthy of solo recitals (reminiscent of Daniel Barenboim in Chicago).

But of course, the central subject of the evening was Christoph Eschenbach for his debut as permanent music director.  Washingtonians are counting their fortunes, quite literally, that they have scored among the world's greatest conductors, whose prior gig netted a $2.3 million salary that was more than double Leonard Slatkin's.  Indeed, just three days before the gala concert, the Kennedy Center's new chairman made a $5 million donation specifically earmarked to cover Eschenbach's salary.  Money matters aside, journalists have made much of tensions between Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra's musicians that led to his departure, a routine entropy which always requires a healthy dose of skepticism.  Consider Slatkin, who was dogged not only by a persistently creepy string at the Washington Post of three successive adversarial critics, but also some mumbling about his relationship with the orchestra and the Kennedy Center management, his preparedness, and his proclivity toward contemporary music.  No matter these things, our loss of Slatkin to Detroit was tragic, and our sense of it will only grow with time.  Music directors have a profound impact on the sound of an orchestra, no less (and more critically for us) the repertoire that it performs.  After all those personality conflicts behind-the-scenes, what remains is the music itself, and the audience for whom it plays.

The forthcoming season roster (and the example of Eschenbach's earlier tenures) make clear that we are headed back to conservatism and EZ-er listening.  There are endless amounts of Beethoven in store, along with the gushing melodramas of Gustav Mahler ad nauseum.  There are barely any American composers (who were Slatkin's special emphasis), such as Samuel Barber who merely receives his billionth performance of the Adagio for Strings.  November does deliver The Miraculous Mandarin of Béla Bartók, but after that, no more Eastern Europe (which was the special treat of our time with Iván Fischer).  English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams or Edward Elgar are nowhere to be found (apart from the clockwork of Handel's Messiah, and an evening of William Walton).  The most we'll hear from France is a passing Faun, apart from the Turangalîla-Symphonie of Olivier Messiaen which is the one concert for which I (speaking selfishly) will sit rapt at all three performances -- a piece worthy of international pilgrimage to hear!

Issues swirl around all of this, such as whom to please -- the monied older generations, the academes, the uninitiated tiptoeing into classical music?  Can we say that a challenging repertoire filled with new ideas, sound worlds and living creators is a long-term investment in the vitality of an ensemble -- the better payoff than expectations of a pleasant "date night"?  If the challenge to sustain an orchestra institution is like throwing a party, what do you play on the jukebox before people pick up and leave?  Do you take a vote?  And when the party becomes so expensive that the stakes on these questions reach deadening proportions, is the party over?  On the other hand, is it fair to answer the generosity of gala patrons and their like with abstract musics that might alienate them?

Welcome to Washington, Maestro.