NSO’s exciting ‘Rite of Spring’ week wrap up

Christoph Eschenbach conducting the NSO in a 2010 photo. (Courtesy NSO)
Christoph Eschenbach conducting the NSO in a 2010 photo. (Courtesy NSO)

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2014 – The National Symphony Orchestra wrapped up its centennial-plus-one celebration of Igor Stravinsky’s trailblazing modernist ballet, “Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) this Saturday past at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall.

With NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach at the helm, the orchestra also performed works by contemporary Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach and Mozart’s “Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major, K. 314” featuring the orchestra’s new principal flute, Aaron Goldman as soloist.

Saturday’s concert led off with the first NSO performance of Ms. Auerbach’s 2010 “Eterniday [Homage to W. A. Mozart]. The new work, while inspired by Mozart’s early residence in Koblenz, the city where “Eterniday” was first performed, does not really riff on any of that composer’s music at all, or at least not obviously.

A generally elegiac work scored for an unusual combination of strings, a single bass drum and a celesta, “Eterniday” is another of the growing number of excursions back into tonality, or at least extended tonality, that today’s younger composers are taking as they go back to the future of Western musical tradition after the long and largely unlistenable nightmare spawned by the Second Viennese School.

“Eterniday” in this writer’s opinion, broke no genuinely new ground. But its unusual scoring, stretching harmonies, and frequent use of slides and resulting quarter-tones primarily in the strings also gave it an interesting and occasionally exotic effect. The extended celesta solo near the close of the work marked a rare and interesting use of a keyboard instrument that’s usually employed only briefly as a musical “special effect.”

Following “Eterniday,” the NSO’s new first chair flute, Aaron Goldman appeared as soloist in Mozart’s delightful flute concerto which, interestingly, had an earlier life as an oboe concerto—a fact that was only discovered in 1920 when the oboe parts and scoring were uncovered.

An extra-added attraction in this performance of the concerto was the commissioning by the NSO of “Eterniday” composer Lera Auerbach to write three new cadenzas for Mr. Goldman, one for each movement of the concerto—an unusual and delightful idea.

Ms. Auerbach responded with three very Mozartian cadenzas that did however, take some unusual excursions that might either have baffled or amused that composer. The harmonic and thematic shifts were subtle but puckishly subversive, providing a slight, added piquancy to the work.

The solo part was played expertly by Mr. Goldman in a relaxed manner that made his performance seem almost as if it were taking place in an intimate salon among friends rather than inside the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. His fluid phrasing and bright interpretation of the work brought a charming end to the concert’s first half.

As the evening’s finale, of course, the NSO got down to business tackling Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” In that work’s notorious 1913 premiere, many of the musicians involved complained about its bafflingly complex score—something they’d never seen the likes of before.

That score is still a tough nut to crack today. But today’s orchestral musicians now have a century worth of experience in both “Rite” and in many of the even more unorthodox works that were to follow in the 20th century. Even so, balancing the parts, providing the proper weighting of coherence and pandemonium, make each interpretation of “Rite” an entity unto itself.

Happily, Maestro Eschenbach appeared to have an imaginative but firm concept of where he wanted this performance to go, taking both the orchestra and the audience on a mythical musical journey to a more primitive time by emphasizing Stravinsky’s frequent, percussive punches and constant, off-beat rhythmic figures.

The result was gratifying. Both halves of this substantial work were both evocative and exciting, highlighted by excellent first chair playing and crisp and responsive tempi, particularly when the viscerally driving finales of both Part I and Part II hit their abrupt concluding notes.

The orchestra’s sound was rich, full and lush throughout. The brass choirs were exceptional as was the work in the very active percussion section. Volume throughout ranged from a chamber music level to overwhelming as each dance washed over the next.

In short, it was the NSO at its very best, bringing this once shocking and now very nearly beloved landmark classic to a brilliantly satisfying conclusion.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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