Eschenbach Bids Washington Farewell with the Beethoven Ninth

United StatesUnited States Sheng, Beethoven: J’Nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Leah Crocetto (soprano), Soloman Howard (bass), Joseph Kaiser (tenor), Choral Arts Society of Washington/Scott Tucker (artistic director), National Symphony Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington, DC. 16.6.2017. (RRR)

Bright ShengZodiac Tales

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 “Choral”

For his farewell programme as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra after seven seasons, Christoph Eschenbach chose to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Bright Sheng’s Zodiac Tales, a work he commissioned during his tenure as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Zodiac Tales was as colourful as the titles of its six movements: “The God of Rain,” “Of Mice and Cats,” “Three Lambs under the Spring Sun,” The Elephant-Eating Serpent, “The Tomb of the Soulful Dog,” and “The Flying Horses.” Sheng took the Chinese zodiac as an opportunity to splash orchestral colours with seeming abandon, as if he had been let loose in a paint shop. It was hardly a surprise to hear references to Chinese music, but Sheng gratefully avoided the kind of East-meets-West faux orientalisms that are so familiar from Hollywood film scores.

 The sounds were distinctive, at times raucous, always interesting, but not held together by much. Obviously sounds have to be sequential in some sense, but the question is: does one follow upon the other with any sense of development? In the louder movements, it often didn’t seem so, though they gave a wonderful workout to the brass and timpani. Things flashed, contrasted, and crashed. One thing just came after the other, usually in short jagged motifs. At times I had trouble catching the rhythm without watching Eschenbach sway at the podium – a description, rather than a criticism.

The two slow movements about the three lambs and the soulful dog were different. In them, Sheng showed he has an ear for attractive melodies and can employ a longer line when he wants to. The third movement was full of pleasant sonorities and the fifth was entrancing, especially mesmerizing in its use of soft strings. Its main melody was so lovely, it could have been a Chinese version of Barber’s Adagio for strings. Of the six movements, these are the two I would like to hear again.

Providing some symmetry to his NSO tenure, Eschenbach ended with the same work with which he began his directorship in 2008 – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The opening movement did not seem to promise much in the way of animation as the tempo seemed too leisurely. It turned out that Eschenbach was simply husbanding his resources, since in the second movement, things took off. If Beethoven is about any single thing, it is power, and the conductor unleashed it in a torrent. And he did so with great clarity. One could see the giant turbines turning, as it were, at lickety-split speed.

But Beethoven is about more than power, as Eschenbach showed in the Adagio, which was as lovingly molded as the finest Bruckner or Mahler slow movements that the conductor has led in recent seasons. Eschenbach has always been very good at layering voices, and this proved no exception.

 The final movement was a complete success, with the superb support of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, which sang with conviction and precision. Bass Soloman Howard soared at his entry, electrifying the Kennedy Center audience. Tenor Joseph Kaiser did not fully project at first, but soon found his footing, and made himself heard to good effect. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges and soprano Leah Crocetto were also buffeted by the orchestral and choral volume, but quickly adjusted, and ultimately the quartet made a marvelous team.

 For Eschenbach’s farewell, he, the NSO, the chorus and soloists aimed at the transcendent, and achieved it. There are ample reasons for Washington to miss him.

Robert R. Reilly

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