Noseda, NSO find new, vibrant hues in familiar canvasses

Thu Sep 27, 2018 at 11:41 pm

Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Rachmaninoff, Respighi and Mussorgsky Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Scott Suchman

As Gianandrea Noseda opened his second season with the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, a question hung over the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. On one hand, the Italian music director was leading a program one might call staid, three late Romantic pieces that offered little contrast or piquancy. On the other hand, one of the pieces was entirely new to the NSO and another had not been heard here in half a century. 

Is Noseda playing it too safe or is he subtly challenging a largely conservative audience? Perhaps it will take some time for Noseda to broaden the palate of Washington listeners, but attendance at least seemed greater than on past Thursday nights. 

What mattered more than the repertoire choices was the excitement of the interpretation. An appealing theme united the program, which consisted entirely of music inspired by paintings and other artwork. Noseda took that idea to heart, leading the music with an artist’s ear for variety of color, texture, and depth.

Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead begins with an irregular chopping motif in 5/8 meter, like the oars of the skiff in Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name slapping the water. Noseda kept the sound of the strings to a minimum in the opening section, golden traces on top of the murky darkness in the low woodwinds and brass. As the dark island seemed to draw near, the orchestra produced a massive, well-paced crescendo of sound.

Noseda did not take an easy pace, accelerating the tempo with exciting abandon. Even though the orchestra did not always hang together perfectly, the effect was thrilling, a moody ink-limned canvas of contrasting shadows. 

The other theme that linked the three pieces on this concert was the quotation of liturgical chant. Rachmaninoff turned, as he often did, to the first phrase of the sequence Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, presented not so much literally as obsessively, beginning in the clarinet like the unnerving tick-tock of a mantel clock.

While the NSO had not played the Rachmaninoff since 1968, under the baton of Howard Mitchell, Noseda was the first to locally premiere Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano for chamber orchestra. Composed in 1927 on a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, each movement corresponds to a Botticelli painting. Noseda launched into the first movement with gusto, the frantic trills of the opening of “Primavera” like a crazed aviary. Warm and lush dance rhythms enlivened the central section of the movement, recalling the roundelay of the Three Graces in the painting.

Respighi used plainchant as well, weaving the phrases of the antiphon Veni veni Emmanuel into the second movement, a musical depiction of “The Adoration of the Magi.” The scoring is austere, transparent strings revealing exquisite solos from oboe and bassoon especially. After a section for celesta and piano plus metallic percussion, perhaps symbolizing the opening of the magi’s treasures, the piece ended with a serene lullaby. The breeze motifs in the last movement, for the wind that ruffles the water in “The Birth of Venus,” seemed like a tribute to Vivaldi’s “Spring” Concerto.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, in Ravel’s lavish orchestration, could have disappointed as a too-obvious choice to end the program, but Noseda’s choices in tempo and emphasis were too explosive and unpredictable for that. The NSO sounded in superlative form as well, right from the sunny, clarion trumpet call in the opening “Promenade” movement. The “Gnome” lurched and hobbled with sudden starts, while the saxophone crooned the troubadour’s melody in “The Old Castle.” Some usual extremes of tempo, like the plodding “Bydlo” movement and the too often labored dialogue of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” were contradicted by surprising choices from Noseda, but others followed expectations like the frantic woodwind chirping of the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.”

The sequence of movements that concluded the piece was astounding. Bold brass proclamations opened the “Catacombs” movement, followed by enigmatic, almost muffled strings for the voices of the dead chanting. Noseda’s rabid approach to “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” grabbed the listener by the throat, fast and biting in its manic edge. The NSO, sounding energized and tireless, followed Noseda through a nearly ideal version of the concluding “Great Gate of Kiev,” with strains of a Russian Orthodox baptismal hymn woven in, which kept the loudest sounds for the most important climaxes.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.; 202-467-4600

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