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If, to paraphrase Mencken paraphrasing someone else, no one ever went broke underestimating the public’s taste in music, then no orchestra ever got rich by saying “hey, let’s put on two Stravinksy programs in a row!”
Yet, bless them, that’s precisely what the NSO is doing this week and next, and sure enough, there were a bunch of empty seats in the Kennedy Center’s concert hall Thursday night.
“Ah,” says Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, “but can we sweeten the pot with an abstract polytonal chamber piece by a contemporary Russian composer featuring a lengthy celesta solo?” Nope, for some reason that didn’t draw the crowds either.
The one potential audience lure of this week’s program, Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto, comes across as an afterthought, and rather than bringing in a big name international soloist, the NSO goes with its own principal flute, Aaron Goldman. Then again, how many living classical flutists can you name? Let’s see, there’s James Galway, Jean-Pierre Rampal—-oh wait, he died 14 years ago. Galway’s about it then.
Not that the program suffered greatly from a Galway deficit. Goldman did just fine on Mozart’s pleasant but ho-hum concerto, with an appropriately pleasant but ho-hum performance. Honestly, as a non-flutist, I can’t say what technically makes for a dynamite flute solo, and Goldman certainly didn’t do anything wrong, but for the life of me I can’t remember much about him. But maybe that’s because it was such an incongruously sweet piece shoehorned in before the cataclysmic Stravinsky.
Readers of this paper probably know Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts as the ballet that lent its name to the ’80s D.C. punk/emo band Rites of Spring, back when emo meant “Guy Picciotto flopping around on stage in a dress” and “protesting at the South African embassy” and not—-well, whatever it means now. Stravinsky’s work wasn’t too well received by fans, who famously started a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere (I’m guessing that was the point of inspiration for Picciotto & Co.) though it’s unclear why, or whether the fans were reacting to the ballet part—-subsequently jettisoned for most performances today, including this one—-or the orchestral part. It’s really not so cacophonous or abstract, but rather a terrific adrenaline rush, full of dramatic crescendos, jarring pizzicatos, tightly syncopated staccatos, and climaxes galore. It’s also particularly suited to Eschenbach’s aesthetic: The NSO director is notorious among musicians for his impulsiveness, changing up tempos from practices to performances, and for emphasizing feeling over technique. But a whirlwind piece like Stravinsky’s is ideal for a seat-of-his-pants conductor who can be both crisp and a little messy when he wants. The NSO’s horns in particular brought out the piece’s folksy bombast to great effect.
Eschenbach also likes to throw in a contemporary piece at the beginning, when the audience is still fresh and open-minded; this time it was Russian composer Lera Auerbach’s 2010 work Eterniday, apparently paired with the Stravinsky for their mirrored two-part structures, and for being a bit hard on the ears. But it’s an odd piece for an orchestra—-it’s really written for a string quintet, with a couple of other backing instruments including the aforementioned celesta (a type of keyboard instrument). Eterniday is also, supposedly, an “homage to W.A. Mozart,” at least according to the title, not that you would ever be able to tell from listening. With its anguished violins anchored by a queasy cello line, angry chords, and extended harmonics, it’s about as far from the fun, joyful Mozart as one can get. So if Auerbach had said it was an homage to Stravinsky or Taylor Swift or whomever, I’d have taken her word for it.
Auerbach does, however, spice up the real Mozart with three cadenzas the NSO commissioned her to write for the Flute Concerto. The meandering interludes did give Goldman some room to stretch in each movement, though they were also decidedly un-Mozart in tone. The effect, then, was a succession of weirdly dark flute solos stuck in the middle of an otherwise upbeat concerto, kind of like—-let’s stick with the local band analogies—-if, say, Darkest Hour was commissioned to write guitar solos for, say, the Max Levine Ensemble.
The NSO’s mini-Stravinsky fest continues next week with his 1919 Firebird Suite, though the highlight is Busoni’s rarely performed piano concerto. Thankfully modern day symphony audiences are too polite to start riots anymore; the tricky part is convincing them to show up in the first place.
The program repeats Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $10 – $85. On Friday at 8:00 pm there is a paired performance and talk titled “Beyond the Score: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—-Savage or Sacred?” at the Kennedy Center. $10 – $50.