Eschenbach closes NSO season with German brass and Classical elegance

Fri Jun 15, 2018 at 10:25 pm

Abel Pereira performed Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1 with Christoph Eshenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday. Photo: Scott Suchman

Christoph Eschenbach, conductor laureate of the National Symphony Orchestra, is drawing the curtain on the first season of his successor. The series of concerts that started last week is a love letter in three parts, each program showcasing one principal musician from the string, woodwind, and brass sections. Eschenbach oversaw the hiring of two of them, oboist Nicholas Stovall, heard on Tuesday, and principal horn player Abel Pereira, who took center stage Friday morning for the final program.

Pereira has been one of the strongest additions to the NSO from the Eschenbach years, a player with verve and musicality in addition to nearly flawless technique. The work he played, Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1, was not really the most flattering vehicle. Completed when the composer was just 18 years old and still a college student, it is an assured work but without the chromatic stamp of Strauss’s mature style. There are reasons why the NSO last played the piece in 2001.

From the heroic opening of the first movement, Pereira played with confident swagger, negotiating the whole range of the solo part, up to impeccable B-flats. The second theme provided contrast in Pereira’s dulcet legato sound, a reminder of Strauss’s deep knowledge of this instrument, which his father played professionally.

The second movement, set in the forbidding key of A-flat minor, with all seven flats, was steeped in gloomy melancholy, skillfully accompanied by Eschenbach and the NSO. There may have been one or two notes slightly out of place in the first solo line of the rapidly paced finale, but from beginning to end Pereira put on a tour de force spectacle.

As in previous concerts in the series, the remaining pieces on this concert also put other members of the orchestra in smaller spotlights. Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik showcased the clean, warm sound of about thirty string players. Eschenbach kept his conducting to a minimum, shaping phrases and insisting on some diaphanous soft passages, especially in the luscious “Romance.”

Some smudges cropped up in the first violins, but Eschenbach’s seating arrangement, with the second violins on the outside to his right, helped bring out many of the latter section’s inner lines. While the hemiola gestures of the “Menuetto” had crunchy clarity, the finale got off to a rocky start, eventually settling into place.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 92, misleadingly nicknamed “Oxford,” made a welcome return since the NSO last played it in 1996. A gentle, mysterious Adagio introduced the otherwise crisp and vibrant first movement, the tempo just a tad too spirited for some of the bustling sixteenth-note runs in strings and woodwinds. The tender second movement surprised most in the minor-mode middle section, where the trumpets and timpani provided some explosive sounds.

The woodwind quintet at the heart of this symphony played immaculately at the end of the second movement. Principal flutist Aaron Goldman was especially fine on the curlicues of the single flute part, trailing off gracefully at the end of sections in the third movement, too. Boisterous horns led the rhythmic sleight of hand in the trio of this movement, emphasizing the third beat of the meter as if it were the downbeat, creating the impression that they were in a different time signature or started a beat early, a joke carried through the rest of the orchestra.

Haydn also liked to single out individual players, as he did in the finale of this symphony, earning another horn player an individual bow for the funny second horn part, staccato tick-tock octaves, in the last movement.

Eschenbach closed this concert with a farewell kiss, the majestic Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It suits Eschenbach’s style, broad and tempestuous. The imperious brass section got a deserved turn in the sun, including that prominent solo played with strength and presence by principal tubist Stephen Dumaine.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday.; 202-467-4600.

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