Symphonic worlds collide with Noseda, NSO

Sat May 13, 2023 at 12:57 pm

Gianandrea Noseda conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Beethoven and George Walker Friday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Scott Suchman

The National Symphony Orchestra is concluding its Beethoven symphony cycle this month. As with the first half of this series, music director Gianandrea Noseda is pairing these familiar works with others in the genre by African-American composers George Walker and William Grant Still. The first program was anchored on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Noseda had planned a complete Beethoven cycle to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Initially, the twist was that the NSO would perform all nine symphonies in just three weeks, beginning in late May of 2020, a plan wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. Fate intervened further with the murder of George Floyd that month, leading the NSO and other classical music institutions into self-reflection about representative programming. Noseda began this reconfigured Beethoven cycle in January last year.

The second half of the cycle opened with the Eighth Symphony, Beethoven’s shortest, a clever gesture. Since Beethoven was self-consciously looking back to Haydn and Mozart, as scholar Lewis Lockwood observed, the Eighth “stands in a stylistically distanced relationship to tradition and becomes an artful commentary on the historical development of the genre.”

Noseda emphasized the lively character of the first movement. Beethoven’s recapitulation of the movement’s first theme in the basses was hard to hear due to Noseda’s full textures. The conductor’s urgent downbeat at times became inverted upwards, as if lashing the orchestra forward.

Noseda held back the tempi of the concise inner movements, giving the jocular second movement the character of a Mozartean buffo serenade. The third movement felt like an easy-going minuet, with especially polished bassoon solos and utterly refined horns in the trio section. 

Extremely brisk pacing gave the fourth movement a manic sense of surprise in the many humorous wrong turns, silences, and misdirections. The spirit of Haydn, who had died in 1809, just a few years before Beethoven composed this symphony, hovered close by.

George Walker idolized Beethoven and aspired to compose symphonies that could stand next to his predecessor’s, making Noseda’s concept for the cycle most appropriate. The NSO is recording all five of the Washington-born composer’s symphonies and just took his Sinfonia No. 4 (“Strands”) to Carnegie Hall last month. Sinfonia No. 5 (“Visions”) was the composer’s last, premiered in 2019 by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, a year after Walker’s death.

While Walker was working on the piece, in 2015, a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. The composer added words to the symphony, spoken by a soprano, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. A combination of quotations and words written by Walker, these texts orient the symphony around the Charleston shooting and the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the United States. (A video by Frank Schramm shown at the premiere, including ocean scenes and photographs documenting the slave trade in Charleston, was not included in this concert.)

The NSO, expanded to a much larger size, dug into the grinding dissonances that pervade the work’s single movement. Only a calmer middle section provided any respite from these persistent clashes. The five speakers—Shana Oshiro, DeMarcus Bolds, Daniel J. Smith, V Savoy McIlwain, and Kevin Thompson—contributed their enigmatic lines via microphones from the chorister seats to the left above the stage. The impact of the work, performed without any specific reference to the Mother Emanuel shooting, was muted.

The fervent dances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony cleared the air after intermission. When Carl Czerny, then Beethoven’s student, asked the composer why the public seemed not to like the Eighth Symphony as much as the Seventh, Beethoven supposedly quipped, “That’s because it is so much better.” Audiences now would likely also disagree with that assessment, as the Seventh remains one of the composer’s most often performed works.

Throughout this performance Noseda pushed for maximum speed and intensity, even in the slow introduction to the first movement. That approach suited the description of the Seventh, again by Lewis Lockwood, that the work’s unity stems “from the rhythmic consistency that governs each movement and the vitality, the élan, that drives the whole work.” Noseda underscored that feeling with his tempo choices, as if with a neon highlighter.

The entire woodwind section contributed vibrant playing in the first movement’s softer moments, with stalwart brass and timpani adding reinforcement to the return of the first theme. The musicians managed nuanced shaping of phrases in the second movement, in spite of Noseda’s brisk pacing that did not sound much like a funeral march. The strings, increased in size to about forty players, exhibited a more unified sound than when they were fewer in number during the Eighth Symphony, especially the violins.

Greater agitation followed in the third movement, a bracing, even manic Presto. The serene trio section, with horns and woodwinds echoing one another like alphorns across a valley, provided much-needed relief. There was nowhere left for the Finale to go but even faster, and Noseda cranked up the metronome to the breaking point. Never has Carl Maria von Weber’s quip about this symphony, that Beethoven sounded “ready for the madhouse,” seemed so apt.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. The symphonic cycle continues in three more programs through June 3.

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