New Era Begins In D.C. With Noseda Invigorating NSO

Music director Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony Orchestra at his first subscription concert.
(Photos by Scott Suchman)
By Simon Chin

WASHINGTON, D.C.— For a city where changes in administration can arouse bitter rancor and partisan division, Washington — or at least the portion of the nation’s capital that cares about music — is united in its hopes for the newly installed music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda.

Soprano Corinne Winters singing Dallapiccola’s Partita with Noseda and the NSO.

The NSO is a highly-paid orchestra that seems to have a knack for punching far below its weight. No one considers it among the first tier, or maybe not even the second tier, of American orchestras. Promising new conductors have come and gone, never quite fulfilling the orchestra’s potential.

To replace the departing Christoph Eschenbach, the NSO went out and lured Noseda, a highly respected name in the music world with a reputation as an orchestra builder, who arguably might have held out for higher profile post elsewhere. It was a stunning hire, and on the basis of Noseda’s first subscription concert with the NSO on Nov. 9 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a wise one.

Back in September, Noseda’s all-Bernstein program for the NSO’s season opening gala sent a clear signal that the Italian maestro would do his part to conduct American music and be malleable to suggestions from his orchestra’s administration. But Noseda’s first subscription program bore the conductor’s unmistakable fingerprints: a challenging, but not-too-challenging, early Webern piece (Passacaglia, Op. 1); an Italian rarity in its first NSO performances (Luigi Dallapiccola’s Partita); and the chance to make a big statement with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Speaking of Bernstein: Noseda has not quite acquired Lenny’s touch for communicating from the stage (though, to be fair, has anyone?), delivering occasionally meandering and not especially illuminating comments to introduce the Webern and Dallapiccola works on the first half of the program. Still, Noseda exuded sincerity and eagerness in his podium remarks, and the audience reacted with good will, its patience not yet tried in what remains a honeymoon period for all.

The performance itself, though, spoke volumes about how Noseda is already putting his own stamp on the orchestra. Now almost a distant memory are the uncertain beat, sloppy ensemble values, and the occasionally inspired, but sometimes simply idiosyncratic, interpretations of the Eschenbach era. Under Noseda, the NSO sounded energized, taut, and well disciplined, like dutiful students eager to please a likable teacher at the start of a new school year.

Yet Webern’s Passacaglia demonstrated just how far the orchestra still has to go. Noseda certainly showed that he can whip the orchestra into a frenzy and deliver pointed, powerful climaxes when called for. But there remained a stubborn workmanlike quality to the NSO’s playing, with Webern’s exposed lines all needing more inflection, shape, and sheen. The tonal and textural complexities of this late Romantic work from 1908, last performed by the NSO during the Leonard Slatkin era in 2001, never quite came together.

Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.

“Who is this Dallapiccola?” Noseda asked the audience rhetorically before leading the orchestra in the Italian modernist composer’s first orchestral work, the Partita from 1933. Dallapiccola was one of Italy’s foremost twelve-tone composers and is perhaps best known today for his later operas, Il prigioniero and Ulisse. Noseda has been an ardent champion of his compatriot and committed the first ever recording of the Partita to disc as part of a two-volume survey of the composer’s orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic.

The 30-minute Partita dates from before Dallapiccola gave himself over fully to the uncompromising thorniness of serialism, and the four-movement work, despite excursions into more adventurous territory, remains grounded in tonality and an Italianate sense of lyricism. Immediately, from the ominous low rumbles that usher in the first movement Passacaglia (a connection to the Webern that Noseda was quick to point out), one could hear the maestro asking for — and receiving — more richly characterized playing. The lyrical asides for strings exuded warmth and tenderness, the teeming lines in the second movement Burlesca were taut and snappy, and climaxes achieved an organ-like sense of mass. The final movement, a gentle setting of a medieval hymn text of the Virgin Mary singing the baby Jesus to sleep, showcased the rich, dusky voice of the American soprano Corinne Winters and brought the work to a shimmering, ethereal close.

In the Eroica, the NSO delivered an incisive, driven, and weighty performance that could become its signature sound in the core repertory under Noseda. The conductor rejected all notions of old-school monumentality, lighting a fire under the orchestra with brisk tempos and achieving fresh and energetic, but not relentlessly overbearing, readings of the symphony’s fast movements. At the same time, Noseda also eschewed some of the more annoying mannerisms of historically informed performance that have crept into mainstream performance practice — the thin textures, the clipped articulation, the tapered phrasing — preferring expressions of coiled power and weight.

Of course, Noseda’s work with the NSO is still in its early days. At times, the orchestra sounded a little helter skelter under Noseda’s breathless tempos. The conductor’s sinuous gestures also rarely translated to the elegant shaping of a line, though he did manage to coax more lilt from the violins the second time through the Eroica’s first-movement exposition. The symphony’s slow movement felt the least successful, exhibiting many of the same shortcomings as the Webern, with the orchestra’s playing lacking in color, atmosphere, and a sense of sustained tension.

Things picked up, though, in the Scherzo, which bristled with inspired vigor. Noseda led a similarly hard-driven start to Beethoven’s finale, though he lavished particular care on the movement’s slow variations, which commanded one’s attention with a glowing warmth and touching poignancy. These passages were the orchestra’s most expressively shaped and expansively phrased of the evening, and held out all the promise in the world for what Noseda can achieve over time with the NSO. He’s already off to a beautiful start.

Simon Chin is a music writer based in Washington, D.C., whose work regularly appears in The Washington Post and Musical America. Follow him at @chin_simon.

Happy pair: Corinne Winters and Gianandrea Noseda after performing Dallapiccola’s Partita with the NSO.