Noseda and NSO offer compelling preview of Japan program

Thu Feb 20, 2020 at 11:49 pm
Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Schubert and Mahler Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. File photo: Tracey Salazar

Gianandrea Noseda is back at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra to present two programs in Washington before taking them on the road for a tour of Japan next month. (The coronavirus epidemic forced the cancellation of the Chinese half of what was originally a more extensive Asian tour.)

As it turns out, the NSO will play the program heard Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall only once on the tour (March 11, at the Metropolitan Theater Concert Hall in Tokyo). For the only program without the featured soloist, Akiko Suwanai, Noseda has paired two monuments of the symphonic repertoire: the slender Eighth Symphony of Schubert and the intense, sprawling Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler.

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony has a tour history, since the NSO last played it on their 2016 tour, to Europe under Christoph Eschenbach, and then also at only one stop on the tour. Noseda emphasized the melancholy side of the first movement, dark undercurrents in the cellos and basses followed by the nostalgic main theme. In the development section the NSO drew more dramatic contrasts with the quieter material, shock-and-awe volleys of loud blasts marking harmonic shifts.

Noseda seemed to get out over his skis a bit in the initial tempo of the second movement. The piece righted itself, with the orchestra settling on a more genial tempo as clarinet and, especially, oboe principals savored their solos. The sensation of serene resolution flowed over the coda of the movement, coming to a tender, soft conclusion.

Now in his third season as NSO music director, Noseda has conducted only one Mahler symphony so far with them, the First Symphony in 2018. Much like that interpretation, Noseda gave exceptional clarity to the form and textures of the Fifth Symphony, taking his time in expertly detailed renditions of the first three movements, and then trudging somewhat dutifully through the last two.

Principal trumpeter William Gerlach called the opening funeral march to order with a clarion solo, growing in edgy tone to bring in the crushing orchestral entrance. Noseda guided the march sections with an easy pacing, so that percussion touches and blaring brass coordinated cleanly. (Saturday’s performance will be broadcast on, another sign of the rising profile of the NSO under Noseda.)

A complex web of countermelodies shone through the transparent texture, often with the principal melody held back to make room for them. The folkloric outbursts of the movement sprang up suddenly and with rash fury, making for turbulent contrasts with the solemn, stately march sections.  

The opening of the second movement was raucous and wild, turbulent chaos that returned periodically. Again inner lines ornamented the luscious slower melodic sections, capped by an exalted, heraldic outburst in the brass. The graceful Scherzo movement, taken at a settled, gentle tempo, featured sentimental, lush strings and solid, brawny sounds from the entire horn section, especially principal player Abel Pereira.

In all three of these movements, Noseda was so crisp and clear in his decisions and gestures that confidence flowed from him through the NSO musicians. With so much time and care lavished on the piece up to that point, it was disappointing that the last two movements felt more cursory. Noseda spoke of the Adagietto, in his opinion, as the composer’s “love letter to Alma,” and it moved quickly, with emotional heat, the passionate fortes emphasized over the disembodied pianos.

A seamless transition in the horn led to the supercharged Rondo Finale, the tempo so fast that the fugal sections seemed almost berserk. To the NSO’s credit, the tangled contrapuntal lines came across with independence and clarity, and whispers of the Adagietto’s thematic material flew by. Not much room was given to rubato shaping by this point, leaving the finale somewhat foursquare. Nonetheless the blaze of brass made the conclusion undeniably thrilling.

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

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