Stutzmann leads National Symphony in captivating Mozart feast

Sat Jun 15, 2019 at 11:08 am

Nathalie Stutzmann conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Mozart Friday at the Kennedy Center.

The National Symphony Orchestra is offering a final toast to the season with three Mozart programs. French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann led the first of these concerts Friday morning in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with a lean and tight chamber orchestra ensemble. Known as a contralto earlier in her career, Stutzmann has made a convincing leap to conducting after leading her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55, which was founded in 2009 and sadly disbanded earlier this year.

Stutzmann, a singer in favor with former music director Christoph Eschenbach, impressed in her Washington conducting debut in the NSO Messiah in 2015. Although her most recent appearance here, a romantic program in 2017, was less successful, this selection of Mozart’s music, featuring NSO principal musicians as concerto soloists, seemed right in her comfort zone.

She approached the overture to Le nozze di Figaro with the slightly exaggerated tempo of an early music conductor. The thirty-some string players sometimes struggled with the streams of sixteenth notes, but the flurry of activity buzzed in apt comic style. Stutzmann’s gestures were impeccably clear and her pacing crisp, although she tended to favor strings at the expense of the horns and bassoon.

Mozart composed the Sinfonia Concertante in 1779, incorporating instrumental techniques he picked up hearing orchestral works in Mannheim and Paris. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and principal violist Daniel Foster excelled as the duo-soloists.

The violinist modified her bright tone and energized vibrato a bit to blend more with the violist’s mellower sound. Bar-Josef was the more accurate of the pair in terms of intonation and evenness of runs; but the two soloists turned corners well together in Mozart’s elaborate double cadenza in the first movement as well as the elegant third movement.

It might have been better to have a couple more violas to cover the orchestra’s two viola parts, getting a richer string texture. The second movement was a highlight, somber of tone color and on the tragic side of the Andante tempo marking. 

Stutzmann shaped expressive phrases, and her careful attention to balances created a plush legato cushion on which the soloists embroidered their intertwining lines. In terms of Mozartian virtuoso panache, it was hard to top Ton Koopman’s antics-filled Serenata notturna earlier this year.

Stutzmann reduced the number of strings slightly for the even earlier Bassoon Concerto, completed in Salzburg in 1774. Principal bassoonist Sue Heineman, standing in front of her colleagues with her instrument supported by a neck strap, gave spark-plug vivacity to the many virtuoso passages of the first movement. She played lengthy, diverting cadenzas, by David McGill in the first movement and J. Walter Guetter in the second, adding her own touches.

In the second movement, a melody that prefigures the Countess’s “Porgi, amor” in Le nozze di Figaro, Heineman displayed impressive breath support and expressive legato line, incorporating refined low notes over broad shifts of register. She maintained energy in the third movement, adding improvisatory flourishes to mark the return of the rondo theme, including one alluding to a Figaro overture motif.

By the time Symphony No. 35 rolled around at the end of the program, the allure of an all-Mozart program was beginning to wane. Nicknamed “Haffner,” it is a reworking for Vienna of a serenade he had written for an event for the Haffner family in Salzburg. The NSO played it with a mostly brilliant sound, and more delicacy in the slow movement, soothing music made slightly sleepy in this performance.

The trumpets and newly appointed assistant principal timpanist Scott Christian enlivened the active Menuetto. The brisk finale gave the NSO another workout, each return of the main theme given an extra zing by Christian’s insistent timpani strikes.

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

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