Noseda explores delightful rarities in latest NSO stream

Sat Apr 17, 2021 at 11:27 am
Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an Italian and American program. Photo: Scott Suchman

The National Symphony Orchestra hopes to be performing live concerts again this fall, just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center. Until then listeners have four virtual concerts to enjoy, all recorded during the visit of music director Gianandrea Noseda last month. The second of these programs, recorded on March 18, was made available to subscribers this week.

Noseda conceived this concert to honor the 160th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and the United States earlier in the week. The Italian ambassador, Armando Varricchio, co-sponsored this program and warmly introduced the concert. The selection of pieces, mostly by Italian and American composers, avoided the usual chestnuts, offering a rarefied distillation of music from the two countries.

The bookends of the concert were suites of baroque and Renaissance pieces, orchestrated with neoclassical finish by Italian composers in the 20th century. At the opening was Bruno Maderna’s Music of Gaiety from 1969, a transcription of five pieces found in the 17th-century Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The first movement, William Byrd’s “Gipsies Round,” had a folksy feel from drones heard in the lower strings, as well as the complement of two oboes, English horn, and bassoon.

The second movement, identified as “Can Shee” by Respighi, is based on the “Earl of Essex Galliard,” an instrumental version of John Dowland’s song “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” set to a text possibly written by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Principal oboist Nicholas Stovall played his solos with a demure sheen and brilliant accuracy, even as the part ranged very high.

The third movement, Giles Farnaby’s “Rosasolis,” provided a jaunty counterpoint to the slower second movement. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef took the violin solos, sometimes accompanied by other solo string players, with increasing virtuosity in the fourth movement, Peter Philips’ “Galiarda Passamezzo.” The last piece, Farnaby’s “His Humor,” featured bouncy alteration between the pastoral double-reeds and the strings.

In the middle came greater variety and orchestral color, beginning with the Allegro movement from the Symphony for Strings, an expansion of Verdi’s String Quartet in E Minor by Arturo Toscanini. Here Noseda became much more animated, following Verdi’s quick mood-shifts from lush serenade to more serious contrapuntal textures. By leaning his entire frame, he guided the ensemble of 22 string players through countless twists of dynamic shading.

Representing America was Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, a piece derived from the composer’s incidental music for Irwin Shaw’s play of that title. Noseda allowed plenty of space for this subdued piece to achieve a serene atmospheric effect. Principal trumpeter William Gerlach was flawlessly clear and mellow in his solo part, a nostalgic evocation of the younger brother in the play, who aspires to imitate jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Kathryn Meany Wilson was equally assured on the gloomier English horn solos.

The high point of this wide-ranging program was Stravinsky’s chamber concerto Dumbarton Oaks, premiered at the Georgetown estate of Robert and Mildred Bliss, who commissioned it. Stravinsky, who became an American citizen and then was buried in Venice, wrote the piece in a more acerbic but still neoclassical style that fit perfectly with the program. Noseda expertly led the fifteen musicians through difficult metric displacements with calm, clear gestures.

The first movement was perky and unharried, matched by a sparse second movement, with little motifs poking out amid colorful combinations of instruments. Principal flutist Aaron Goldman played with a silvery lightness, often answered by clarinetist Lin Ma and bassoonist Sue Heineman. The third movement had more weight to the sound but felt insistent rather than obsessive, the many rollicking cascades of notes all in place.

Noseda brought the concert full circle by closing with Respighi’s Suite No. 3 from Antiche Danze ed Arie, more melancholy than the second suite, which Noseda introduced to the NSO for the first time in 2019. Respighi orchestrated Italian and French tunes from the Renaissance, in this case for strings only. The second movement, a set of court airs by Jean-Baptiste Besard, charmed especially from its opening theme in the violas and in a spirited pizzicato section.

Noseda insisted on a broad range of dynamics and expression, which diverted the ear even more. The third movement, an anonymous Siciliana, turned both wistful and graceful. The only misstep was the fourth movement of the set, a 17th-century Passacaglia by Lodovico Roncalli. Perhaps seeking to provide a climactic finish, Noseda and the limited number of strings opted for a sound that was too forceful, bogging down this otherwise effervescent suite.

This concert streams on the Kennedy Center’s Digital+ platform, where the third NSO program will be available April 19. Both programs will then be accessible by the general public, on April 30 and May 21.

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