Stutzmann Kicks off NSO's Mozart Festival

Several seasons ago, the National Symphony Orchestra began a “Coffee Concert” series, with select Friday concerts at 11:30 in the morning instead of 8:00 at night. Turns out there’s a market for this, at least based on yesterday’s impressive attendance. The programming helped, I’m sure; guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann was presiding over the opening concert of a mini-festival of three all-Mozart programs over eight days. The festival features NSO principals as soloists; Nurit Bar-Joseph (violin), Daniel Foster (viola), and Sue Heinemann (bassoon) here; Abel Pereira (horn) in the second program, June 18 & 19; and Aaron Goldman (flute) and Adriana Horne (harp) in the last, June 20 & 21. The overall selection is disappointing, though, hewing entirely to the most well-trod standards rather than exploring.      

Stutzmann, a world-class contralto now widening her interests, is principal conductor of Norway’s Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra and Ireland’s RTE National Symphony Orchestra, and has guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Symphony. She is clearly no dilettante, infusing even the most simple accompaniments with assured and sophisticated ideas. She also trusts the musicians, beating the largest-possible time units in fast music, rather than trying to micromanage every bar. On the downside, there were some exceedingly-strange agogics in the Menuetto of the “Haffner” Symphony, and the breakneck finale had several different tempi. But there was no question of her deep sincerity or musical command.  

Stutzmann’s one gaping problem is what seems to plague everyone who takes the podium in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, namely a false idea of what is being heard in the audience.  Mozart’s orchestral music largely rests on his string writing, the winds providing an accompanimental tapestry with occasional short solos. But the hall magnifies wind and timpani sounds at the expense of the strings; time and again rapid violin figurations were obliterated by sustained notes from the wind section, with timpanist Scott Christian terrorizing the entire group.  

What is so irksome about all of this is that it’s fixable. The highly-trained NSO musicians are perfectly capable of adjusting their dynamics when so directed. But neither Stutzmann nor really anyone else who’s come along has taken the trouble to go out and listen from the back of the hall and then make corrections. A Mozart conductor has two jobs: shaping the musical line and transparency. Stutzmann gets an A- on the first and a D- on the second.  

The soloists all did excellent work (and all played by memory, which is quite rare for these pieces). Sue Heinemann’s visible delight in her rare solo opportunity belied a rich, mature cantilena in the slow movement of the Bassoon Concerto, and impressive acrobatics in the first movement cadenza. Foster couldn’t quite match Bar-Josef’s beauty of tone in the Sinfonia Concertante, but his passagework was clean and solid, and the meshing of lines in the two difficult cadenzas reflected originality and careful preparation. Here again, though, Stuzmann was careless about balances, allowing the winds to cover up the viola too often. Mozart and the NSO patrons deserve better.