Subtle yet stirring, Noseda makes belated Wolf Trap debut with NSO

Sat Jul 27, 2019 at 1:07 pm
Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky Friday night at Wolf Trap. File photo: Scott Suchman

Two local orchestras are facing existential crises this summer. So it was heartening to see a nearly full house for the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert Friday evening in the Filene Center at Wolf Trap. After the brutal heat wave last week, the weather was clear and cool, a perfect night for a crowd of listeners to be lifted up by the music of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.

The event marked music director Gianandrea Noseda’s belated Wolf Trap debut. His scheduled 2017 bow, just before he took up his NSO post, was canceled because of a back injury. Noting “it is my first time here” as he took the stage, Noseda assessed the Filene Center as “a fantastic place,” which on Friday night it certainly is.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is the sort of romantic blockbuster well suited to such occasions. Chinese-born violinist Ning Feng made his NSO debut with the work, a performance marked by elegant restraint as well as technical assurance.

Noseda and the NSO crafted a sly, delicate opening to the first movement, ramping up in intensity to the soloist’s entrance. Ning’s take on the first movement was more an occasion to lean in and listen than to be blown away. He elicited a honeyed tone from the 1721 “MacMillan” Stradivarius, dulcet and never raucous in his hands, emphasizing the melancholy side of the piece more than its fireworks.

The orchestra kept itself in perfect balance with this approach, polished even in its loud, full responses to the soloist’s themes. The more daunting solo technical passages were not without flaws, with some intonation issues in fast double-stops and slight trouble with the extremely high notes in the cadenza. Ning went light on the rubato in the second movement, keeping the tempo moving forward rather than lingering too much over every phrase. Flutist Aaron Goldman and clarinetist Lin Ma spun wistful countermelodies against him.

Technical doubts vanished, however, in the third movement, as light as it was lively, every note clean and distinct in off-the-string passages. In the little folkish interludes, the NSO made a charming imitation of some droning, homespun instrument, capped by the growling huskiness of Ning’s G-string sound.

Next season Noseda will lead a Beethoven festival with the NSO, performing all nine of the composer’s symphonies in the space of three weeks. He gave a taste of what to expect with this rendition of the Fifth Symphony, already heard at the Kennedy Center in April. His tempo for the first movement was so brisk and brash that the famous unison opening went by in a flash. Noseda did not let up at all on this sense of maximum urgency, even hastening through Beethoven’s surprise oboe solo in the recapitulation, played poignantly by Jamie Roberts.

Noseda kept the second movement fluid and forward-moving as well, emphasizing the outstanding playing of his woodwind section, excellent in both solos and as a group. The third movement’s main theme, kept legato and soft, had a sort of slithering menace about it. Noseda’s clipped approach to the first movement seemed to make more sense at this point, as the symphony’s famous opening motif had sounded much like the crisp allusions to it here, announced by the heraldic horn section.

Beginning with the hushed tension of the transition from the third movement, the Finale was packed with energy, and the trumpets rang out heroically in the triumphant climaxes. The orchestral enthusiasm could not be dampened, even by that unexpected return of the sneaky Scherzo music. 

The event also served as a timely reminder to the audience: support your local orchestra, or one day you could lose it.

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