There are a lot of ways to talk about an orchestra’s sound. You can analyze the quality of the various sections; talk about the way those sections play together; point out strengths and weaknesses among the principal players. But there are intangibles, as well.
Five years ago, the National Symphony Orchestra didn’t sound like an orchestra that was having fun. Now, under Christoph Eschenbach, it does.
That’s not to say there aren’t some technical issues — with the orchestra or Eschenbach. On Thursday night’s program at the Kennedy Center, balance between sections was a problem: The brass overwhelmed the strings in sections of the suite in Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” and in the final movement of the Beethoven Seventh. At times, Eschenbach slowed everything so much that the music seemed to crawl.
But at least something was happening, almost all the time, and quite a lot of it was good. Offsetting the balance issues in “Rosenkavalier” and the smearing of sound in big sections — as if someone had wiped a big gob of Vaseline over the lines of this already wonderfully goopy score — were moments of absolute gracious lightness. The music that accompanies the presentation of the rose in the opera, the epitome of teenage romantic fantasy, was as shimmering and magical and genuine as you could wish — and Nurit Bar-Josef, the concertmaster, brought both grace and warmth to her solos. Washington heard the Vienna Philharmonic play this piece under Lorin Maazel a few months ago; in terms of emotion, this reading stood up well to the competition.