Stutzmann returns to NSO with a romantic program

Fri Oct 06, 2017 at 12:04 am

Nathalie Stutzmann conducted the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Simon Folwer

Most orchestral conductors start out as something else, usually instrumentalists of one sort or another. Rarely are they singers, who more often go on to conduct choral ensembles.

Nathalie Stutzmann, a contralto in her first life, made the leap with her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55, founded in 2009. The French conductor made her second appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

For her first visit here, in 2015, Stutzmann conducted Handel’s Messiah, with idiosyncratic but outstanding results. Baroque music has also been the focus, not exclusive but predominant, in her work with Orfeo 55. Would she do as well conducting later repertoire?

The answer was both yes and no, at least in these three works from the last quarter of the 19th century. Her interpretation of Édouard Lalo’s Overture to Le Roi d’Ys was exemplary. Premiered in 1888 at the Opéra Comique, this little-known opera takes up the same story as Debussy’s piano prelude La cathédrale engloutie, about a mythical city submerged in the ocean.

Stutzmann guided the orchestra through the unfamiliar score with authority and musicality, an expansive rubato applied to shape the somber opening unisons and forlorn clarinet and oboe solos. Her musical ideas were uniformly strong, especially in terms of ensemble balances, with the brass adding just the right bronze tinge to many textures rather than overwhelming the other instruments. Her seating arrangement of the strings, with cellos on the outside of the orchestra to the right, put principal player David Hardy on display for his gorgeous solos toward the end of the piece.

Arabella Steinbacher

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher took the stage for Brahms’ Violin Concerto, in a performance that seemed crafted by Stutzmann to emphasize the sweeter side of the piece. Violinists with a beefier tone often try to elbow their way through the score, hammering the double-stops and searing the high passages. Stutzmann seated a reduced number of string players (12-12-10-8-6) and then set about creating an often misty canvas for Steinbacher to fill.

Gentle tempos in all three movements added to a sense of smoldering inner warmth, rather than outward sizzle. This approach worked beautifully in the inward-looking themes of the first movement, and even more so in the stately Adagio movement, opening with a show-stealing solo from principal oboist Nicholas Stovall.

Stutzmann was less impressive as an accompanist with the long first movement losingmost of its steam before the end. Worse, she and Steinbacher did not always agree on the pacing either, especially in the second movement, which seesawed back and forth. The reduced volume from the orchestra did not necessarily help with minor tuning issues in Steinbacher’s playing, similar to those noted in her Beethoven concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2012, just slightly off but unfortunately persistent. The technical side of her playing was formidable, making for an exciting finale, paced just fast enough to be playful and folksy.

After a somewhat shaky first movement, Stutzmann produced strong and unified performances of the inner movements of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. Tension bristled in the Poco Adagio, an agonizing piece that Dvořák subtitled “from the sad years,” having just lost his mother and having had three of his nine children die in infancy. It was paired nicely with a fast Scherzo movement, smooth and urbane in spite of its brisk pacing. In the latter especially, the rhythmic crispness of the tightly bound ensemble crackled, the shifts between duple and triple unfolding organically.

Stutzmann’s gestures in the first movement lacked clarity, seeming to result from an attempt to conduct the subdivisions of the compound meter. Initial confusion across the orchestra eventually coalesced, and the larger number of strings, by comparison to the Brahms, produced a broader sound. Stutzmann finally pulled out the stops for the finale, the brash interpretation yielding an emotional punch that brought the evening to a triumphant conclusion.

The program will be repeated 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.; 202-467-4600.

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