Skip to main content

The NSO’s industrial strength evening of Sibelius and Mahler

Written By | May 8, 2015

WASHINGTON, May 7, 2015 – Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach successfully brought two complex and vivid late-Romantic masterpieces to vivid, sometimes anguished, but ultimately triumphal life; namely, Mahler’s imposing Symphony No. 5 and Sibelius’ eclectic and highly challenging Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47.

The latter was brilliantly and imaginatively executed by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who is here for a two-week residency with the orchestra, more of which anon.

Enough can’t be said for Mr. Kavakos’ outstanding performance of the Sibelius concerto. Composed, first performed and then revised from 1903-1905, this difficult and structurally unusual concerto got off to a rocky start at the beginning of its history, due in large measure to the Finnish composer’s prickly personality. But over the years it’s become a key element in many a virtuoso violinist’s repertoire.

That noted, Mr. Kavakos’ inventive mastery of this work is a force that other violinists will have to reckon with. Confident, passionate and with a skill set that proved endless in its variety and inventiveness, he attacked this concerto’s wildly varying moods with passion and ferocity when required and with an almost nano-delicacy during other more intimate moments.

Most surprisingly, he was also able to hold his own and even rise above this concerto’s sudden and massive outbursts in the brass section, almost like a heldentenor Siegfried whose voice has the capacity to soar over the fortissimos of a Wagnerian orchestra.

Mr. Kavakos remained intensely focused on the music throughout, almost as if he were mind-melding with the composer and his craggy score. His mood and intensity broke only once, in the midst of the long opening movement, when a powerful and powerfully ill-timed cougher in the orchestra seats drew a brief but intensely irritated glance from the artist, who, fortunately, was able to quickly re-enter the Sibelius Zone and proceed.*

Under Maestro Eschenbach’s baton, the NSO—particularly the endlessly and interestingly subdivided string sections—dove into the Sibelius with an energy that matched that of the soloist, helping to create one of the best performances we’ve ever heard of this concerto. Thursday’s audience seemed to be of a similar mind, greeting the orchestra and soloists with a wildly enthusiastic ovation that spontaneously launched at the finale’s final downbeat.

The second half of Thursday’s concert was slightly delayed in order to honor four orchestra members who are retiring at the end of the current regular season, having performed with the NSO for an incredible combined total of 142 years. Retiring members are violinists Paula Sisson Akbar, Dennis Piwowarski and Vernon Summers; and cellist Robert Blatt.

Also honored was NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who will be honored in Germany later this month as the recipient of the 2015 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize. Regarded by many as music’s “Nobel Prize,” the award will be given to Maestro Eschenbach in Munich by Michael Krüger, president of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, on May 31, 2015.

After a quick rearrangement of the first violinists’ seating array, Mr. Eschenbach re-entered the concert hall to conduct an immensely rich and satisfying performance of Gustav Mahler’s imposing Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1904), a work that saw Mahler returning to a purely orchestral format after his massive pair of choral symphonies—2 and 3—and his surprisingly intimate Fourth Symphony, whose final movement features a soprano soloist.

Most of Mahler’s music is programmatic to a point, and his Fifth Symphony is no exception. The standard interpretation is that the symphony gradually moves from darkness into light. That’s certainly plausible, as the work moves inexorably from its gloomy, “funeral march” first movement to a wildly exuberant finale.

However, Mahler generally disliked being pinned down on such matters, and nothing is an absolute certainty, interpretation-wise. For the most part, it seems that Mahler created the scaffolding for most of his symphonies based on a conceptual story-arc, but then preferred the completed works to be listened to as pure music.

Whatever the case, the Fifth Symphony in many ways has the same rugged, at times almost disjointed vigor and northern sensibilities as the highly episodic Sibelius violin concerto.

Launching with the extraordinarily heavy, percussive artillery of its brooding and tragic first movement, paired with a second movement in the same mode but much faster, the symphony brightens in its lengthy, manic yet often lyrical central scherzo.

At this point, the mood softens as the symphony’s fourth movement—its famous “Death in Venice” Adagietto—begins to unfold, petal by delicate petal. For a composer whose music often seems possessed by “sturm und drang” sensibilities, this exquisite movement, scored only for strings and harp, is achingly beautiful, latching on to the deeply romantic stirrings best expressed earlier in Chopin’s nocturnes, but imbuing them with the kind of rich, late-Romantic coloring that only Mahler could supply.

The NSO strings came close to absolute perfection in their performance of this gorgeous movement Thursday evening, perhaps still riding on the high they achieved during the Sibelius. Whatever the case, this was a two- or three-hanky moment, the kind that’s usually reserved exclusively for operas.

This movement is sometimes regarded as elegiac, but it is not. Instead, it’s very likely Mahler’s love song to an extraordinary young woman half his age, the legendary Alma Schindler. She eventually became the composer’s wife, even as he strove to complete the Fifth. It’s certainly delightful to at least imagine that the adagietto helped to seal the deal, although the ensuing love match ended up not to be entirely a tranquil one.

The fourth movement quietly segues into a vigorous finale, in which Mahler subtly recycles bits from the earlier movement with new material that drives the symphony into a triumphant, almost Bacchanalian close.

The NSO and Maestro Eschenbach turned in a wonderfully interesting and varied interpretation of this vigorously compelling symphony. The various instrumental choirs all made the most of their opportunities to shine. That included the first chairs, who always have ample opportunities to shine in a Mahler symphony. Happily, they made the most of these opportunities Thursday evening.

The only tentative notes, for some reason, materialized in the opening moments of the first movement, during which the solo trumpet seemed to be encountering subtle technical difficulties. Fortunately, things soon righted themselves, and the NSO, under full sail, turned a performance of this symphony as exciting, moving, and altogether lustrous performance as any audience could hope to enjoy.

Rating: *** ½ (3 ½ out of 4 stars)

The NSO will repeat this concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Friday evening and Saturday evening.

Tickets and information: Tickets are priced from $29 to $85. For details and to purchase tickets, visit the NSO pages of the Kennedy Center website.

Note: Mr. Kavakos is in the midst of a two-week residency with the NSO. He’ll be returning next week not only to perform a violin recital accompanied on the piano by Maestro Eschenbach; but also to conduct and perform in next week’s regular series concerts which will feature J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Sibelius’ “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Ravel’s dazzling orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” We’ll be publishing a short preview of these events this weekend. Tickets currently available at the Kennedy Center link above.

*(BTW, we approve Mr. Kavakos’ rebuke. Over many decades now of concertgoing, we’ve noted a gradual deterioration in consideration for the performing artists on the part of audience members—frequently male—who make no effort to cover up the heartiest of sneezes and catarrh-y coughs. Though inadvertent, these hearty hack attacks often seem timed with split-second perfection to disrupt only pianissimo passages.

Use a handkerchief or stifle it, guys. Or if that’s not humanly possible, stay at home, donate your tickets and take a tax write-off if available. This is classical music, not a farewell tour for the Rolling Stones.)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17