Christoph Eschenbach's tenure as Music Director of both the National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts comes to a close at the end of the 2016-17 season. I've attended performances with Eschenbach conducting in San Francisco, but not here in Washington with the NSO, so I've little to say about his tenure or his departure, except to note everyone seems ready to move on, and by all accounts the big goal -- taking the NSO into the top-tier of American orchestras -- remained frustratingly beyond his grasp. It will take at least a couple of years to see if his successor, Gianandrea Noseda, can succeed where Eschenbach fell short. Noseda's tenure will have to compete for attention in the public's eye with that of Jaap Van Zweden's, who'll be taking over the helm of the NY Phil at the same time. The timing gives East Coast classical music lovers a bit of a horse race to watch in terms of how each orchestra evolves during a turbulent, challenging time in the American performing arts scene..
The end of one era signals the beginning of another and is always a good time to take stock of the present. The NSO's programming this season isn't a radical look to the future nor does it seem hopelessly stuck in the past - there's an intriguing mix of standard rep, some contemporary works (though not enough), and rarities from lesser-known composers -- in other words, there's plenty to assess the state of the orchestra as it moves forward into the Noseda era, including appearances by conductors who would have been worthy successors to Eschenbach (Runnicles, Urbanski, Conlon). Like other major U.S. orchestras, female composers and conductors are woefully underrepresented on the schedule, and it's a pity Esa-Pekka Salonen and Susanna Mälkki aren't present. Still, it wasn't hard to pick 10 subscription concerts from Eschenbach's swan song at the helm. Here they are, in chronological order:
- What: Nicola Benedetti plays Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto
Why: The Scot performs Marsalis' concerto -- a piece for the soloist and orchestra loaded with nods to the American music he knows so well, and written especially for her. The program also features Eschenbach conducting Tchaikovsky's "Polish" Symphony.
When: October 27 - 29.
- What: Donald Runnicles conducts Duruflé's Requiem
Why: Runnicles debut with the NSO was only last year, but audiences in Atlanta, San Francisco, and across Europe know he's a masterful and passionate conductor. The program includes an opportunity to hear Duruflé's Requiem, a 20th Century work composed under the Vichy regime, plus Debussy's Four Préludes and Trois Nocturnes. The extraordinary mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone Christian Bowers, and the University of Maryland Concert Choir are on hand for the Duruflé.
When: November 10 - 12.
- What: Krzysztof Urbanski conducts Dvorak's "New World" Symphony
Why: Urbanski is one of the most interesting of today's younger conductors -- watching him conduct is as rewarding as hearing what he does with the orchestra. The program features the NSO debut of cellist Johannes Moser as the soloist for Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, and opens with Wojciech Kilar's Orawa, a 1988 composition for string orchestra.
When: November 17 - 19.
- What: Eschenbach & Gidon Kremer celebrate Rostropovich with works by his pals Shostakovich and Weinberg
Why: The opportunity to hear Gidon Kremer perform Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Violin Concerto is reason enough to go, but there's also the Shostakovich 8th.
When: January 26 - 28.
- What: Cornelius Meister and Hilary Hahn
Why: Because Hahn performs the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, plus there are thematic works based on fantasy themes by Dvorák, Janácek, and Richard Strauss. The Strauss piece, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, is a work I've never liked. We'll see if Meister can change my low opinion of it.
When: February 16 - 18.
- What: Conlon celebrates Rostropovich with Britten, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev
Why: Lise de la Salle makes her debut with NSO on Prokofiev's first Piano Concerto, and there's the added lure of Shostakovich's 5th, but the main thing to look forward to on this program is Conlon, a passionate interpreter of Britten, leading the orchestra through the composer's astonishing Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes.
When: April 6 - 8.
- What: Cristian Macelaru conducts Beethoven and Bates
Why: Sergey Khachatryan is the soloist for Beethoven's Violin Concerto, plus music by Smetana, Sibelius, and Mason Bates' Liquid Interface, commissioned by the National Symphony and last performed by the NSO in 2007.
When: April 20 - 22.
- What: Ton Koopman conducts Bach and Handel
Why: No one conducts music from the Baroque era better than Ton Koopman. Period.
When: May 18 - 20.
- What: Edo de Waart conducts Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Bates, with guest soloist Alice Sara Ott
Why: Rachmaninoff's 3rd Symphony isn't performed often, though the late work by the composer, heavily influenced by his native Russia and perhaps Richard Wagner, should be, even if it doesn't contain the obvious thrills of his 2nd. I'd rather hear Alice Sara Ott perform something other than the Tchaikovsky concerto, but we don't always get what we want. Bates wrote the 10-minute Garages in the Valley with the music if Gérard Grisey, and dedicated it to de Waart, who conducted the premiere with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra.
When: June 8 - 10.
- What: Eschenbach conducts Beethoven's 9th
Why: Is there a more fitting piece to mark the beginning or the end of an era? Nope. Eschenbach began his NSO tenure with the piece, and goes out with it. Bright Sheng's Zodiac Tales is the warm-up for the main event.
When: June 15 - 17.
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Top photo of Cristoph Eschenbach by Thomas Frischhut.