Conductor: Christopher Eschenbach
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No 1 in A Minor, Op. 77/79 – Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Bruckner: Symphony No 9 in D Minor
Sometimes it is just best to roll with life’s left-field punches than try to fight them, so that’s just what I did during my quick, unexpected stay in Washington, DC earlier this week. Completely determined not to let an aggravating real estate issue take over my life and spoil my fun, I managed to find the time to meet with old friends and visit favorite haunts. Above all, I happily made it to the Kennedy Center for a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with my dearest fellow music lovers.
The program consisted of only two – but what two! – works: Shostakovich’s jarring First Violin Concerto, performed by its biggest fan Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, and Bruckner’s sprawling 9th symphony. Seeing the familiar faces of the NSO’s musicians always feels like coming home for a family reunion, and the less familiar face of Christopher Eschenbach added a cool touch of novelty, creating the perfect storm of comfort and excitement.
Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 may not be pretty thing, but it is a fascinating one. The wide range of emotions and the countless technical challenges make it a beast difficult to tame, but this has never stopped fearless Nadja Solerno-Sonnenberg, who has made it her signature piece. After two decades of working it, on Thursday night she proved that nothing, not even a nasty bout of flu, would keep her from treating the audience with a dynamite performance of it. From the dark, penetrating Nocturne to the devilishly macabre Burlesque, she assertively remained in control of the wild composition, playfully shooting off the dazzling fireworks of the Scherzo and viscerally working her way through the exceptionally long, treacherous cadenza. Christopher Eschenbach and the NSO managed to keep pace with her and provided the perfect support for a memorable experience.
Another monumental work is Bruckner’s Symphony No 9, which he dedicated to his “dear God”. Although he had conceived it for four movements, the composer died before completing the last one, leaving the rest of us with just some fragmentary portions of it or his suggestion to use the Te Deum. Since neither option has ever been considered fully satisfying, most orchestras only play the complete three movements, forming an impressive musical arch made of a fast movement supported by two slow ones. On Thursday night, Christopher Eschenbach and his musicians superbly demonstrated that this is the way to go by delivering an engaging first movement followed by a fierce Scherzo before eventually raising to celestial heights in the Adagio’s mystical coda, which concluded the concert on a truly inspired, immaculately serene note.