Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach
Pintscher: Hérodiade-Fragmente - Marisol Montalvo
Beethoven: Symphony No 9 in D Minor, op. 125, "Choral" - Marisol Montalvo, Yvonne Naef, Nikolai Schukoff, John Relya and The Choral Arts Society of Washington
For the first subscription concert of his tenure as the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Christoph Eschenbach went for well planned balance. Beethoven’s glorious Symphony No 9 is certainly a no brainer when it comes to special occasions, but then the problem lies in the other half of the program, which requires a piece of the right length and with enough punch not to be overshadowed by the all-encompassing masterpiece.
Today, the honor went to young and highly-regarded German composer Matthias Pintscher and his Hérodiade-Fragmente, a “Dramatic Scene for Soprano and Orchestra”, which he wrote in 1999 for the Berlin Philharmonic. It has been a favorite of the NSO’s new maestro for a while, and since this is his night, it is only fair to let him have it.
After the obligatory “Star Spangled Banner”, we got plunged right into high-octave biblical drama with Salome and Hérodias turned into one single woman who was having twice as bad a day. Inspired by a monologue from the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé in which Salome is having a total breakdown while waiting for the head of John the Baptist, Matthias Pintscher composed a post-modernist score of grating intensity. According to him, getting what you want is apparently not always what it's cracked up to be. Mostly driven by a huge percussion section, the music is multi-layered, dissonant affair that definitely requires some work from the listener. The soprano Marisol Montalvo, another favorite of Eschenbach's with whom she has performed this particular piece a dozen times, was visually dazzling in a personally designed, tightly fit, bright red dress, but her voice did not come close to match her allure. I am not sure if our seats in the back or the loud playing from the orchestra or an actual lack of vocal power on her part are to blame, but she was barely audible most of the time. She seemed to have the right stuff the few times she came through, but those moments were so fleeting that it was hard to tell for sure.
Anyway, after Salome/Herodias and her hysterical neurosis were done and over with, we finally got to hear what most of us were there for, Beethoven’s sublime ninth symphony. And boy, was it worth the wait! Christoph Eschenbach is well-known for his emotional as opposed to technical approach to music, and thank God for that. He led a NSO obviously happy to be back on such familiar territory into a viscerally alive performance, bringing particularly beautiful sounds from the always reliable cello section. The thunderous moments resounded forcefully, the quiet moments soared impeccably, and then came the Ode to Joy. Aptly introduced by an assertive John Relya, Schiller’s stirring call for brotherhood among men exhilaratingly filled the packed concert hall with the help of the more than competent quartet of soloists and an all-around brilliant chorus. Ground-breaking works deserve over-committed performers and listeners and that is just what happened this evening, when we all happily basked in Beethoven's work of genius. The rousing, ever-lasting ovation bodes well for the just beginning Eschenbach era.