Noseda, NSO close SHIFT Festival with rarities, rendered with subtlety and finesse

Sun Apr 15, 2018 at 12:26 am

Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Saturday night with vocal soloists Rexford Tester and Andrew Bogard (seated). Photo: Scott Suchman

Each of the four orchestras featured at the SHIFT Festival this week, co-presented by Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center, highlighted a different facet of symphonic life. Experimenting with interdisciplinary collaboration, championing contemporary music, and embracing the fullest potential of sound all had their turn.

On Saturday the National Symphony Orchestra went instead for subtlety and finesse. Music director Gianandrea Noseda did not choose new or dissonant music, although none of the pieces heard was all that familiar. This was music that tested the individual players in the orchestra, beginning with Stravinsky’s score for the ballet Pulcinella.

The stripped-down chamber ensemble, with the strings further divided into concertino and ripieno groups, delicately etched each miniature number, all older music by Neapolitan composers given a modern edge by Stravinsky.

The NSO’s talented principal musicians excelled in the many solos, for flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and horn. A new face appeared in the violin section, Miran Kaleigh Kim of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in a strong try-out evening for the position of associate concertmaster.

Three singers from Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program took the vocal numbers. Tenor Rexford Tester and soprano Madison Leonard were appropriately light of tone, anchored by the stronger bass of Andrew Bogard, who had the best solo outing in the song “Con queste paroline.” Noseda’s airy, dancing touch and gentle tempo choices gave the music plenty of room to breathe and move.

Italian arrangements of other Russian music filled the concert’s second half, a brilliant exploration of the color palette accessible by a talented orchestrator.

Noseda, who is a champion of lesser-known Italian composers, made the most of Alfredo Casella’s exotic arrangement of Balakirev’s Islamey. Here the visiting Kim took the concertmaster’s seat, contributing confident solos. The English horn playing in the languid middle section seemed to fill the room with hookah smoke.

Ottorino Respighi made even more vivid orchestrations of five of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, in response to a request from Serge Koussevitzky. The first, “La mer et les mouettes” (Op. 39, no. 2), contrasted the slowly oscillating pulse of ocean waves in the lower strings with the punctuating cries of gulls in the violins and woodwinds. Noseda wisely kept the tempo on the slow side and the dynamic generally hushed, giving the impression of sounds heard in the distance over a dune.

The third of these pieces, an enigmatic funeral march (Op. 39, no. 7), was the most direct reference to the dedicatee of this performance, the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The celebrated Russian baritone, who died last fall after a battle with cancer, was to have sung on this concert. Noseda’s program, mixing together Russian and Italian elements, was offered in tribute to Hvorostovsky’s wish to sing Shostakovich’s Suite on Words of Michelangelo. Following the raucous, brief second piece, “The Fair” (Op. 33, no. 7), it was a full-throated expression of grief.

The brass growled hungrily in the fourth piece, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf” (Op. 39, no. 6), provoking the timid, frightened response of the strings. The final piece in the set is also a march (Op. 39, no. 9), although it felt neither martial nor triumphal in Respighi’s curious arrangement.

Noseda’s programming revealed all of the individual strengths of the NSO, not just principal musicians but all those who contribute each detail of shading and hue to the orchestral canvas.


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