Noseda, NSO hit the dance floor in a night of premieres

Fri Nov 08, 2019 at 12:10 am
Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an evening of dance-inspired music. File photo: Scott Suchman

Orchestras were created to accompany dancing. Gianandrea Noseda’s latest program with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the ensemble back to those origins in a way. 

The concert of music heard Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is a tasting menu of dances, mostly in contemporary versions and arrangements. If it tread closely to the lightness of a pops program at times, the music also packed some delightful surprise punches.

Noseda spruced up the familiar opener, Johann Strauss II’s Tales from the Vienna Woods, by including the original part for solo zither. A mist of nostalgia hovered over the opening of distant horn calls, pastoral woodwinds, and a tender solo from principal cellist David Hardy. Noseda lingered sentimentally over the main slow theme, and guest musician Kurt Eckroth, seated with his zither near the podium, added a sweet, folksy touch.

The NSO strings, winnowed down to under thirty players, acquitted themselves stylishly in Ástor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. The Argentine composer’s music loses something essential without the instrument he played, the bandoneón. Leonid Desyaknikov’s reworking of the piece into a set of violin concertos compensates by cleverly incorporating snippets from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons into a brilliant solo violin part.

The solo writing was right in the sweet spot for NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, her throaty, electric tone enlivened by a rich vibrato. Noseda slid and leaned as he helped shape the orchestral sound around his soloist’s burnished playing. Performing all four of the pieces stretched the idea of a concert of bite-size selections a bit, as the coy references to the Vivaldi concertos get a bit tiresome.

On the second half was a series of more compact delights, starting with Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, which—like the Piazzolla piece—was being played for the first time by the NSO. The piece is not much, composed as a little piano suite in the last year of the composer’s life, but it is worth hearing in the charming orchestration by William Grant Still, a sort of souped-up Hollywood vision of Caribbean music. Noseda favored pokey, easy-going tempos, bringing out the occasional saxophone lines.

More Piazzolla followed, the more concise Libertango in an alluring orchestral arrangement by Gian Luigi Zampieri. Four members of the percussion section set up an infectious rhythmic groove that ran through the piece, again kept at a gentle lope by Noseda.

It is difficult to make Piazzolla seem square, but Igor Stravinsky’s delightfully odd Circus Polka, also played by the NSO and Noseda at their season-opening gala concert in September, did just that. The NSO brought off the work’s downbeat-shifting kookiness with a wry grin rather than a broad smile, exploring the many quirks that lie within Stravinsky’s masterful use of the orchestra. Subtle send-ups of John Philip Sousa and Johann Strauss’s waltzes glimmered in the texture.

The third piece that Noseda introduced to the NSO on this program was a rarity he may have brought back from his years conducting in St. Petersburg, Rodion Shchedrin’s eccentric arrangement Two Tangos after Albéniz. The Russian composer seasoned the music with a vast range of percussive touches, each a soft presence that did not overpower, including castanets, crotales, glass chimes, sleigh bell, and much more. With the textures so rarefied it felt like a distillation of Piazzolla’s broader tango style.

The evening concluded with a rousing rendition of five selections from the Nutcracker Suite of Washington’s favorite son, Duke Ellington. Made originally for Ellington’s own ensemble with help from Billy Strayhorn, the work has had a second orchestral life in this swinging arrangement by Jeff Tyzik. The brass were tight and blazing in the big band-style sections, and idiomatic solos from trombone, trumpet, saxophone, and clarinet had an improvisatory flair. Listen and the approaching winter doldrums will fade away.

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

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