NSO: Symphonic Milestone- Eroica

This was a last-minute and somewhat messy plan.
I’d seen the program for this concert ages ago and at the time, wasn’t able to attend. Some recent schedule changes meant I was free, but by that time I’d entirely forgotten about it. I ended up buying my ticket only a few weeks ago, kind of late relative to how early I try to get my hands on most tickets. 
I saw NSO and Eroica, and that was enough. I was at the ticket counter to buy a ticket for another show anyway, and there were still seats. On the ticket was the name Khachatryan. My initial assumption was that something was on the program from the same man who composed that sabre dance and that they’d just spelled his name differently. That would be cool, because he’s kind of known for that one tune, but his other stuff is worth attention. 
Turns out I was wrong. When I realized this, it occurred to me that it would be mildly strange to program Eroica and Khachaturian together. Turns out Sergey Khachatryan was the soloist. The program was as follows. 
I mildly regret not buying multiple tickets and inviting other people to come along. It would
have been an excellent introductory concert for newcomers to the symphony, I think. It represents a nice large chunk of the 19th century.
I never remember what seats I buy anymore without first checking my ticket, but I had a pretty decent seat. I’m not as picky about where I sit for a violin concerto. 
I feel like both the Wagner overture and the Bruch concerto are interesting exciting enough to hold the attention of even the most uninitiated listeners. The Beethoven is famously not brief, but it’s also a fundamental part of the repertoire, and a piece everyone should experience live. Once I saw the actual program, I quickly thought of a handful of people I’d like to have brought along. 
But it was too late for that. 
It’d also been a while since I attended an evening performance by our fantastic NSO, and it was a packed house. I am glad I still managed to get a ticket when I did. This is how performances should be attended. There were some young kids behind me explaining the symphony orchestra to their parents, a professor in front of me; it felt like an enthusiastic crowd. 

The stage was clearly set for something like the Wagner: lots of seats.

Wagner was stunning. I spoke earlier about general audiences. I think general audiences hear ‘overture’ and in their heads think Offenbach or Rossini. But this is Wagner, and while there are some French-y things about it, it’s a Wagnerian overture; it shimmers and glitters and soars and hums and roars. I had chills throughout a significant part of it (thanks low brass). It was moving enough at some portions to be close to making one’s eyes wet. From the quiet, almost solemn, chorale-like opening all the way through to the grand end, it was spectacular. 
Next is Bruch. And, I know, I know, it is one of the most famous violin concertos, but it has never been one of my favorites. We covered the Mendelssohn here a while ago, and I’d even had enough of that one after a little while. I have nothing against either of them. They’re staples of the repertoire. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that I would find something too Romantic, but these perhaps are. That all being said, I don’t want to criticize the piece too much, because Khachatryan did a stunning job with it. He is a tall, young (a year older than me) almost lanky-looking gentleman (at least from however many yards away I was sitting) with an almost-too-casual air. His walk out onto his place on the stage was almost a swagger, but not. If you hadn’t been listening, his performance would have looked almost… bland, emotionless. At almost every given chance, he lowered his instrument and cradled it like a small guitar/baby. He didn’t flail or swoon or sway or crouch or make any of the other expressive gestures on stage aside from those necessary for an incredible performance. Closing your eyes, then, was impressive. The clarity of expression, a sweetly rich tone was perfect for this sweetly Romantic concerto. While it is not one of the concertos I would choose to listen to recreationally, it was a fantastic performance, and wonderful to see live, and the audience roared into applause before baton or bow had come down. 
There seemed perhaps to be some reluctance to perform an encore, but after (I believe) three re-entrances, Khachatryan took his place on stage and lifted his violin, and instantly the applause that had now been carrying on for what felt like around ten minutes stopped. The violinist was motionless; he stared off into the middle distance for a while, at the floor of the stage or off into the audience as if preparing mentally or deciding what to play. He inhaled and (in English, of course) announced that he would be playing something from his country and gave the Armenian name. I’d been thinking of Khachaturian as ‘that Armenian composer,’ but as soon as he said that, Alan Hovhaness came to mind. Perhaps it wasn’t until he began playing; the piece was a sorrowful, fairytale, windswept folk music piece, traditional sounding, and spellbinding, almost hypnotic. Just as the world the piece was building around you began to feel complete and whole, the piece stops, and rapturous applause broke the brief moment of silence. It was truly beautiful.
The second half of the program consisted solely of Beethoven’s spectacular Eroica symphony, no. 3 in Eb. This is the third (maybe fourth? I think third) time I’ve heard this symphony in the past year. First was the Asian Youth Orchestra, and then the Philharmonia, and now. 
For reasons I won’t really get into here (probably for a later thoughts post), I decided while listening to the first movement that Eroica is the perfect litmus test for an ensemble and conductor. It will now be my go-to piece for recordings or performances by various orchestras/conductors, etc. I’ll talk somewhere else at some other time about that, but needless to say the Philharmonia under Salonen was mind blowing. Herbig’s interpretation was slightly different. It’s not surprising that it felt more like a Karajan or Bernstein performance than the Harnoncourt or Chailly cycles. Herbig spent time under Karajan and Scherchen, and it showed. His tempos weren’t as fast, and it felt generally more dramatic and slightly heavier. I did notice that in contrast with the Philharmonia’s more ‘historically informed performance’ (with period horns and trumpets and timpani and a very pared down ensemble), our NSO had four of all the winds, with the exception of the horns, of which there were six. It was a bigger ensemble, a more Wagnerian approach to the piece. That’s not a criticism at all. I heard some things last night that I’d never heard before: complete lines from the (four) bassoons in the first movement, and other little details here and there that seemed new and interesting. Overall, it was an excellent performance. The marche funebre is always moving, and the eight enormous basses sounded so clear, a low rumble to begin the movement. It was all very nice. 
The applause, again, seemed like it could have barely been contained another second. Herbig ran out of gestures. Call for the soloists and performers to stand up in different orders, leave, return, we all stand, we all sit, gesture to the left, gesture to the right, bow, hands up, hands down, leave, return, walk throughout the orchestra and shake the principles’ hands, (this made me think it was some kind of final farewell concert for Herbig, but then I remembered I’ll be seeing him again next week), and eventually he signaled for the concertmaster to follow him out. Lights went up and that was that. 
Khachatryan had joined the audience for the latter half of the concert and people immediately flocked to his seat for autographs, and the ushers did a diligent (but I’m not sure how successful) job with crowd control. Unlike Isserlis, who left the instant the program was over, I think their idea was to wait until the hall cleared to get out. The crowd came to him. In any case, I didn’t have the chance to run into our violinist on the stairs. 
It was a wonderful evening, and it seems the NSO has a truly dedicated fan base. I will also be attending concerts of the NSO for the next two weeks, so look for those posts. I almost feel like there’s nothing left to review. They’re a wonderful ensemble who never disappoint; always very high-quality stuff. We’ve got Shostakovich and Bruckner on the program in the coming weeks, so I’m looking forward to those. I think the Bruckner marks the end of their 2015 season. But we’ll talk about that when we get there. 

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