Shaham charms with Dvořák as Noseda, NSO scale Schubert’s epic Ninth

Fri Jan 19, 2024 at 11:01 am

Gil Shaham performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo; Scott Suchman

The National Symphony Orchestra is celebrating music director Gianandrea Noseda’s 60th birthday this season in style. The main theme is a series of concerts called “Musical Roots: Noseda and Friends,” featuring visits from some of Noseda’s favorite collaborators. 

On Thursday night, Gil Shaham joined Noseda and the NSO for the latest installment of the celebration, making himself the life of the party in Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto.

Shaham commanded attention from the start with his dark tone colors and virtuoso swagger. Yet he also brought out the sweetness in Dvořák’s melodies—crucial in a work that, even more than most by this composer, depends on charm for its appeal. Shaham broadcasts enthusiasm for the music even when he wasn’t playing, by responding to emphatic chords in the orchestra and smiling broadly at particularly lovely passages.

The NSO and Noseda rewarded Shaham’s attention with alert support, particularly in the lovely woodwind playing in the second movement as Shaham made his violin shimmer. In the finale, Shaham pointed up Dvořák’s furiant rhythm with a quicksilver tone, and the NSO accompanied with equal elan, making for a sparkling close.

Acceding to the audience’s demands for an encore, Shaham played Scott Wheeler’s Isolation Rag, a genial morsel composed during the pandemic that balances pointed wit with genial melancholy. It paired well with the good humor of the Dvorák finale.

The Overture to Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera The Wreckers, which opened the program, had the most success in its quieter passages on Thursday night, particularly when assistant principal bassoonist David Young played a haunting solo followed by a sweet violin melody from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Unfortunately, much of the music boomed and stomped in a very square way, with a particularly unconvincing hymn near the end.

Before concluding the program with Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, “The Great,” Noseda asked the audience to imagine Schubert composing as a young man in the Vienna of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, trying to write something that could make his mark. (Schubert completed it in 1826 and died two years later, at the age of 31.) The performance that followed eschewed heaviness and self-conscious grandeur for an alert, fleet approach throughout.

Gianandrea Noseda conducted the NSO in music of Dvořák, Schubert and Ethel Smyth Thursday night. Photo: Scott Suchman

Noseda began with a brisk walk of an Andante slow introduction leading to a first movement that bristled with energy, yet stayed light and clean in sound. Indeed, one of the great achievements of Noseda’s NSO tenure has been achieving a more transparent sound in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. That clarity is crucial in this symphony, where Schubert normally has two or three fetching melodic figures working simultaneously, and it was a treat to be able to hear all of them.

In the Andante con moto, Noseda carefully managed dynamics and kept a steady pace, as the NSO built up to the climactic, shattering dissonance in a way that felt both dreadful and inevitable. The NSO played eloquently, notably the emergence of the second theme, which sounded like a ray of light shining through the orchestra. The strings’ articulation of the Scherzo’s main theme was razor-sharp, and Noseda made sure the rhythms sprang throughout, while the Trio had an easy, absorbing grace.

Among other things, this epic symphony tests the stamina of an orchestra, with the biggest workout coming for the strings in the finale, playing tight, quick figures over and over again. Yet the energy level of the orchestra never flagged during the last movement, with consistently scintillating playing. Noseda carefully shaped individual passages and linked them together to create momentum that felt unstoppable, with a thrilling, emphatic coda to cap a performance to remember.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.

2 Responses to “Shaham charms with Dvořák as Noseda, NSO scale Schubert’s epic Ninth”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2024 at 5:51 am by Robert Suslowicz

    I have never heard the Schubert 9th played at such fast tempi as on Thursday. While I agree that under Noseda the NSO ably maintained a transparent sound, for my taste the tempi by and large diminished, rather than enhanced, my enjoyment of this sublime work. The scherzo, in particular, seemed e to have been taken at breakneck speed, as if to demonstrate the technical proficiency of the NSO under extreme demands. To this listener, it did not amount to a satisfying performance.

  2. Posted Jan 24, 2024 at 4:21 pm by Alex

    It was an excellent performance of the Schubert, with an amazingly fast pace in the first movement. I occasionally felt that the brass were restrained despite Noseda physically encouraging them: was I crazy?

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