The NSO’s forte for fall­ing flat

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

It’s one of the high­est-paid or­ches­tras in the United States. Its name gives the im­pres­sion that it’s our coun­try’s na­tional or­ches­tra. It’s filled with ex­cel­lent mu­si­cians. So why is the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra so lack­lus­ter, haunted by the curse of medi­ocrity?

Now at the start of its 85th sea­son, em­barked on yet another search for a new mu­sic di­rec­tor, the Kennedy Cen­ter’s CRITIC’S flag­ship or­ches­tra is fac­ing NOTEBOOK the ques­tion of what it wants to be, and what it will take to reach the next level that it never quite seems to at­tain.

There’s a lot you can blame for the NSO’s prob­lems. There’s theKennedy Cen­ter Con­cert Hall, in which it is hard for the play­ers on­stage to hear each other and, con­se­quently, to play to­gether. There’s a lack, for most of its history, of a gal­va­niz­ing leader with both the com­mit­ment and the tech­ni­cal abil­ity to

give it a thor­ough ground­ing in the

The Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra is mired in medi­ocrity. What will it take to move from ada­gio to al­le­gro?

nuts and bolts of ensem­ble play­ing. And there’s the Kennedy Cen­ter it­self, which, while it pro­tects the or­ches­tra and its play­ers from some mea­sure of ac­count­abil­ity, “hasn’t given [the or­ches­tra] the re­sources, in­sti­tu­tion­ally, to re­ally go for it” — in the words of the Kennedy Cen­ter’s pres­i­dent, Deb­o­rah Rut­ter.

But ev­ery­one in­volved seems to put the blame on some­one else rather than take re­spon­si­bil­ity for fix­ing it. And each suc­ces­sive mu­sic di­rec­tor, each new ini­tia­tive, rep­re­sents a small step to­ward im­prove­ment while fail­ing to ad­dress the larger is­sues, keep­ing the or­ches­tra on a tread­mill of per­pet­ual ad­vance­ment with­out ac­tu­ally get­ting any­where.

Is it suf­fi­cient for the NSO sim­ply to be good enough? It’s test­ing out the kinds of out­reach and com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives that or­ches­tras are sup­posed to be do­ing in the 21st cen­tury. It turns in some fine per­for­mances on in­di­vid­ual nights, even if it some­times seems that fewer peo­ple are buy­ing tick­ets. What does an or­ches­tra need to be, any­way? The Kennedy Cen­ter and the NSO— along with pretty much ev­ery or­ches­tra in the United States — are try­ing to fig­ure that out.

‘ That’ll do’

The NSO is a puz­zle. It doesn’t lack for money; it doesn’t lack for tal­ent. There have al­ways been some ex­cel­lent mu­si­cians in its ranks, and in re­cent years, someof the weaker links, play­ers who were ru­mored to have kept some po­ten­tial mu­sic di­rec­tors away, have been weeded out. Talk to NSO mu­si­cians to­day and you come away with a sense of op­ti­mism. “I think the or­ches­tra, right now, is the best it’s ever been as an or­ches­tra,” says Wil­liam Foster, a vi­o­list with the NSO who served as prin­ci­pal for many years af­ter join­ing the ensem­ble in 1968.

Marissa Regni, the prin­ci­pal sec­ond vi­o­lin­ist, calls it a “fam­ily at­mos­phere.” “Peo­ple are friendly and en­gag­ing and en­joy be­ing around each other,” she says, adding, “It’s an in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive group of peo­ple. . . . I think it’s a great group to play with.”

“I think we’re just a few steps away from achiev­ing the level of any other world top or­ches­tra,” says Abel Pereira, the or­ches­tra’s prin­ci­pal horn, who left a free­lance ca­reer with some of the top or­ches­tras in Europe — in­clud­ing the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic— to join the NSO. Pereira is one of eight new prin­ci­pal play­ers ap­pointed un­der Christoph Eschen­bach, in­clud­ing the prin­ci­pal flute, oboe, trum­pet and trom­bone: a sub­stan­tial re­newal, and a marked im­prove­ment.

Yet when you go to an NSO con­cert, you never know what you’re go­ing to get. Some­times, you get very good play­ing. Other times, you hear un­par­don­able slop­pi­ness, sec­tions drown­ing each other out in a soup of sound that you don’t ex­pect from pro­fes­sion­als. It’s cu­ri­ous that an or­ches­tra with so much tal­ent is still able and, in some sense even will­ing, to sound like such a mess.

There are three places to look for the prob­lem— an­dits so­lu­tion.

The first and most ob­vi­ous cul­prit is the mu­sic di­rec­tor. For the first four decades of its ex­is­tence, from its found­ing in 1931, the NSO was led by two quirky cel­lists-turned-Hans Kindler and Howard Mitchell. Not un­til the Hun­gar­ian mae­stro An­tal Do­rati took over in 1970 did the or­ches­tra have a mu­sic di­rec­tor with the tech­ni­cal and mu­si­cal abil­ity to help bring it to a new level. You could ar­gue that it hasn’t had one since.

Each of the three suc­ceed­ing mu­sic di­rec­tors has had qual­i­ties that his pre­de­ces­sor lacked. The world-renowned cel­list Mstislav Rostropovich brought pas­sion, com­mit­ment and elec­tric­ity to his con­certs, but he lacked solid con­duct­ing tech­nique. Leonard Slatkin, his suc­ces­sor, was a skilled tech­ni­cian with a vi­sion for a “Na­tional Sym­phony” con­cen­trat­ing on Amer­i­can mu­sic, but he was more in­ter­ested in per­form­ing a wide va­ri­ety of reper­tory than in hon­ing ex­cel­lence. “It’s good enough” or “That’lldo” in re­hearsal be­came by­words for a group that some­times sounded as if the goal of a per­for­mance was sim­ply to get by.

Eschen­bach marked a re­turn to the Euro­pean core reper­toire, but he also con­ducts more from pas­sion than tech­ni­cal savvy. And although his ten­ure has in­cluded some high­lights — in­clud­ing two ma­jor tours, with a third in the off­ing in 2016 — he hasn’t put forth a real vi­sion for the in­sti­tu­tion. Eschen­bach, who will step down in 2017, is one of the top-paid con­duc­tors in the United States, partly be­cause he is the mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Kennedy Cen­ter as well as the NSO. In prac­tice, that’s trans­lated to a hand­ful of cham­ber con­certs — not ex­actly the larger col­lab­o­ra­tive vi­sion one might ex­pect from some­one earn­ing $2 mil­lion a year.

Yet even the most vi­sion­ary of mu­sic di­rec­tors can’t trans­form an in­sti­tu­tion sin­gle-hand­edly. “What we don’t need is a sense, which I’ve felt maybe in the past too much, that [the next] mu­sic di­rec­tor is go­ing to solve ev­ery­thing,” says Foster, the vi­o­list.

An un­clear vi­sion

A sec­ond cul­prit for the or­ches­tra’s prob­lems­may be the com­pla­cency of the mu­si­cians. It’s a great thing to have a sup­port­ive work­ing at­mos­phere and a se­cure and well-paid job, thanks to the deep pock­ets of the Kennedy Cen­ter. What the NSO fails to bring across, though, is the kind of knife-edge com­mit­ment ev­i­dent from some of the coun­try’s ac­knowl­edged lead­ers. At the Chicago Sym­phony, which Rut­ter used to run, there’s a sense that ev­ery player is giv­ing his or her best at ev­ery minute. The NSO can con­vey loose­ness and a lack of fo­cus. There’s a slight parochial­ism to the or­ches­tra, with its rah-rah speeches ac­com­pa­ny­ing gala sand re­tire­ments. This is only com­pounded by some of the mem­bers’ dif­fi­dence. In solo out­ings with the or­ches­tra, the con­cert­mas­ter, Nu­rit Bar-Josef, has at times con­veyed the sense that she’d rather be part of the group than show her stuff in front of them, which shows laud­able team spirit, but not gal­va­niz­ing lead­er­ship.

The third cul­prit is the Kennedy Cen­ter it­self.

With­out the Kennedy Cen­ter, the NSO would have folded years ago. The Kennedy Cen­ter saved the or­ches­tra and main­tains it, even though it is in the red and even as ticket sales (ad­mit­tedly not the cen­tral marker of fis­cal health) vis­i­bly de­cline. But this sup­port comes at a price. TheNSO is part of a large in­sti­tu­tion that has many other fo­cuses. Mar­ket­ing and fundrais­ing are con­trolled by a cen­tral of­fice. Mar­ket­ing, in­par­tic­u­lar, needs work: The NSO­some­times seems in­vis­i­ble in the world around it. Even Eschen­bach’s inau­gu­ral con­certs didn’t at­tract much out­side at­ten­tion.

“The cen­tral­ized way in which we have worked hasn’t been ideal,” saysRut­ter. “Soweare re­think­ing how we do our busi­ness.”

The think­ing is over­due. The Kennedy Cen­ter is Washington’s main pre­sen­ter of clas­si­cal mu­sic. Yet it ap­pears to have­madeno clear ef­fort to fig­ure out how its clas­si­cal in­sti­tu­tions — the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, the Kennedy Cen­ter Or­ches­tra, the Washington Na­tional Opera, the For­tas Cham­ber Con­certs and oth­ers — rep­re­sent the in­sti­tu­tion and in­ter­act with each other. The ten­dency has been to put to­gether tra­di­tional con­cert se­ries; make oc­ca­sional for­ays into one-off, ques­tion­ably con­ceived fes­ti­vals; try out­reach ini­tia­tives such as “NSO in Your Neigh­bor­hood”; and solve prob­lems by throw­ing money at them — in­clud­ing Eschen­bach’s $2 mil­lion salary— rather than un­der­tak­ing the kind of sys­temic eval­u­a­tion and im­prove­ment that Rut­ter says is now go­ing on.

“I think in some ways there was a sense of, ‘Let’s just keep things go­ing the way we’ve been do­ing them be­cause it’s eas­ier and sim­pler and we know how to do that,’ ” she says.

There is lit­tle doubt that Rut­ter, who has spent her en­tire ca­reer in the or­ches­tral world, will play a con­sid­er­able role in the on­go­ing mu­sic di­rec­tor search. There also is lit­tle doubt that she has al­ready formed her own as­sess­ment of the or­ches­tra’s cur­rent po­si­tion. Sit­ting in her of­fice with Rita Shapiro, the NSO’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Rut­ter demon­strates both a com­fort­able give-and-take with the ad­min­is­tra­tor and a pro­tec­tive mag­na­nim­ity, jump­ing in to take the tougher ques­tions and veil them in a com­fort­able swathe of con­sul­tant-speak.

“There needs to be a con­certed ef­fort to un­der­stand the iden­tity of the or­ches­tra,” she says. “How we ar­tic­u­late it, how we talk about it, what’s the shared lan­guage around it. That all sounds very cor­po­rate, but it needs to be, es­pe­cially with the in­sti­tu­tion here.”

At the mo­ment, the vi­sion is still un­clear— as is the ques­tion of who’s go­ing to im­ple­ment it, and how, and with what funds. The Kennedy Cen­ter has deep pock­ets, but cost-cut­ting also is at is­sue in these chal­leng­ing times, for an or­ches­tra with a $36 mil­lion bud­get that’s not selling tick­ets. The NSO’s cello sec­tion is un­happy that one of its po­si­tions, left va­cant due to re­tire­ment, will not be filled, re­duc­ing the sec­tion from 11 cel­los to 10, although Shapiro says the ul­ti­mate out­come of this re­duc­tion is that the or­ches­tra will main­tain its cur­rent size.

The or­ches­tra’s great­est strength, Shapiro says, is its “flex­i­bil­ity,” specif­i­cally its “will­ing­ness to try lots of dif­fer­ent kinds of mu­sic” and “work­ing with artists who are not of our clas­si­cal world.” That’s a use­ful pre­req­ui­site for suc­cess in the 21st cen­tury, par­tic­u­larly for an or­ches­tra that dou­bles as a pops or­ches­tra. But it’s hardly go­ing to help it forge a new iden­tity. “I think they’re an or­ches­tra that is re­ally hun­gry to be great,” Shapiro says. But the NSO isn’t go­ing to be great un­til ev­ery­body in­volved takes the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing it that way, rather than wait­ing for some­one else— the mar­ket­ing depart­ment, bet­ter winds, a new mu­sic di­rec­tor— to come along and fix it.

So­cial media as sav­ior

Pereira, the prin­ci­pal horn player, has been a mo­ti­vat­ing force; other play­ers are en­cour­aged sim­ply that the or­ches­tra was able to win some­one of his cal­iber. He of­fers a slightly dif­fer­ent, Euro­pean per­spec­tive on the NSO’s tra­jec­tory. Com­pared with its au­gust coun­ter­parts in Europe, he avers, “This or­ches­tra is in a grow­ing process.” He adds: “The or­ches­tras in Europe have es­tab­lished their tra­di­tion for so many years; they have so many record­ings. . . . I am­sure we will be there if we take the op­por­tu­nity to reach the world au­di­ence through mar­ket­ing, through so­cial media.” Does he him­self use so­cial media? Not so much.

Pereira would make a good poster boy for a new NSO, one rep­re­sent­ing the very best of mu­si­cal qual­ity. One hopes he doesn’t also be­come a poster boy for the NSO’s cur­rent re­al­ity: a great mu­si­cian in a so-so or­ches­tra, wait­ing for some­one, any­one, to make it bet­ter.

“I think in some ways there was a sense of, ‘Let’s just keep things go­ing the way we’ve been do­ing them be­cause it’s eas­ier and sim­pler and we know how to do that.’ ” Deb­o­rah Rut­ter, Kennedy Cen­ter pres­i­dent

AN­NIE WU FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

JUANA ARIAS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Christoph Eschen­bach con­ducts the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra dur­ing a 2012 per­for­mance. Eschen­bach, who also serves as mu­sic di­rec­tor for the Kennedy Cen­ter, will be step­ping down in 2017. He is one of the top-paid con­duc­tors in the United States, earn­ing $2 mil­lion a year.

ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ON­DINE

ABOVE: “Of Rage and Re­mem­brance,” top, and “Remembering JFK — 50th An­niver­sary Con­cert” are among the record­ings that the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra has re­leased. The num­ber of record­ings pales in com­par­i­son with or­ches­tras in Europe, says prin­ci­pal horn player Abel Pereira. BE­LOW: Mstislav Rostropovich con­ducts the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra and the Choral Arts So­ci­ety dur­ing a 1993 per­for­mance in­Moscow. He brought pas­sion, com­mit­ment and elec­tric­ity to his con­certs, but he lacked solid con­duct­ing tech­nique.

RCA

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