Before embarking on a much hyped tour of South America, Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra concluded their Kennedy Center season with a crowd-pleasing program of Romantic favorites. Warhorses by Berlioz, Lalo, and Tchaikovsky, also to be performed on tour, showed off the orchestra’s wares in sweeping, energetic readings that were long on passion and commitment, if somewhat lacking in finesse.

Christoph Eschenbach with the NSO © Margot Ingoldsby Schulman
Christoph Eschenbach with the NSO
© Margot Ingoldsby Schulman

Based on Thursday evening’s concert, the NSO’s Latin American audiences will encounter an orchestra whose technical standards have improved significantly since the Rostropovich and Slatkin eras. The strings, while lacking the tonal sheen of more virtuosic ensembles, are a particular strength, playing with clean attacks, accuracy in fast passagework, and confident power when called upon. The woodwinds and brass, meanwhile, are more consistent and less strident, though they still could use several degrees of further refinement.

Under Eschenbach’s direction, however, refinement is not what is necessarily being asked of the NSO. Ensemble values – polish, precision, and a harmonious sound picture – appear to be less of a priority for Eschenbach than sweeping passion, weighty textures, muscular propulsion, and visceral excitement.

So it was on Thursday night. The program began with an exciting, if untidy, performance of Berlioz’s Carnaval Romain overture that embodied both the strengths and weaknesses of the Eschenbach approach. The strings played the virtuoso passages with spirited aplomb and the cantabile sections with an attractive fullness of tone. Yet the brass playing was occasionally clumsy, and the climaxes were hectic and frenzied. The maestro seemed to let the orchestra simply fly through the bravura passages, with minimal attention to the shaping of lines or the piece’s overall architecture. And, in a fit of overexuberance, Eschenbach lost control of his baton, which flew into the second violins – a telling gesture if there ever was one.

The soloist for Lalo’s Cello Concerto, which followed, was Claudio Bohórquez, a German-based artist of Peruvian and Uruguayan descent. Bohórquez played with sensitive expressivity and an attractively unmannered lyricism, capturing the shifting moods of the score, from dark to playful and poetic. Eschenbach’s accompaniment favored a thick orchestral sound yet never overpowered the soloist. The only minor disappointment, in an otherwise confident performance, was Bohórquez’s occasionally careful, if certainly accurate, negotiation of the third movement’s fast passagework. Still, this was an eloquent and persuasive performance.

The highlight of the evening, though, was an undeniably powerful reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a performance that reflected what could be called Eschenbach at his best. For along with excitement and frenzy, the conductor brought a structured grandeur to the piece that gave coherence and cumulative power to what is an often rambling and bombastic score. To be sure, Eschenbach’s interpretation was not entirely persuasive. The opening movement, taken at a plodding tempo, was fussy and mannered, with Eschenbach not allowing the melodies to simply sing. The lilting waltz of the third movement, meanwhile, could have used a lighter touch.

Yet the way Eschenbach sculpted the lines and built steadily, yet irresistibly, the heroic climaxes of the second and fourth movements forgave (almost) all. The slow movement, which began with that glorious string melody, unfolded with an unforced eloquence and culminated in ecstatic catharsis. In the finale, Eschenbach’s structured approach gave shape to the orchestra’s inspired and energetic playing and an irresistible logic and power to the overall work. In the pause before the orchestra takes up its final, bravura passages in the coda, a spontaneous cackle of glee could be heard from an audience member in the orchestra section. I can’t say I blame him. For this was a magnificent performance, exciting yet utterly sincere, full of passionate commitment and genuine thrills.