By James L. Paulk
WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the National Symphony Orchestra’s mainstage concert at the 2018 SHIFT Festival, music director Gianandrea Noseda had planned a program featuring his friend Dmitri Hvorostovsky singing Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti. When the beloved baritone died in November, Noseda substituted an unusual program of composers orchestrating the works of other composers.
In each piece one of the composers was Russian and the other Italian. The program had personal significance for Noseda, an Italian whose career took off after he was chosen in 1997 by his mentor, Valery Gergiev, to be principal guest conductor at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, a position Noseda held for a decade.
The April 14 concert served as the festival’s finale, but also as a festival debut of sorts for the NSO, which was not part of the inaugural festival last year. More significantly, it served the ongoing introduction of Noseda, who is finishing up his first season here. Which made it especially daring for him to showcase a program that had not been part of the orchestra’s regular season and that was being performed here for the first time.
In 1919, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Igor Stravinsky to orchestrate some pieces thought to have been written by Pergolesi (it was later determined that some of the works are from other Baroque composers for a commedia dell’arte troupe). The ballet score which resulted, Pulcinella, was quite different from Stravinsky’s earlier ballets and became an important turning point in his career as he launched his Neoclassical period. Scored for a chamber orchestra and three vocal soloists, Pulcinella’s sound is spare and uncomplicated, but its idiosyncratic orchestration adds very modern harmonies to the earlier composers’ melodies.
Stravinsky soon crafted a shortened concert suite that eliminated the vocalists, and it is this version that’s performed more often today. Noseda wanted to include a vocal element in this concert to honor Hvorostovsky, to whom it was dedicated, so he chose the full original version, using soloists from Washington Opera’s Young Artist Program.
Soprano Madison Leonard has a light, flexible, utterly youthful sound. Tenor Rexford Tester mastered the work’s cruel machine-gun passages but was a bit underpowered. The most gratifying performance came from bass-baritone Andrew Bogard, whose rich, clear, resonant voice filled the hall.
The orchestra score provides many opportunities for solos and small ensembles such as a string quintet, and it was in these moments that the National Symphony players best succeeded, especially the brass and woodwinds, but also concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, who displayed a warm tone. The orchestra was less successful when playing tutti, revealing minor intonation problems in the strings and slightly shaky entrances.
Noseda is a fascinating conductor to watch, tall and kinetic, with a huge wingspan and big gestures. Charming in conversation, he is said to be popular with his musicians, who appreciate his work ethic and his collaborative approach.
For decades, Noseda has promoted relatively obscure Italian composers through his Musica Italiana recording project. Still, his devotion to Alfredo Casella stands out: Most of the available Casella recordings are conducted by Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic, including a four-volume compilation of Casella’s orchestral works. He even included a Casella piece (Elegia eroica) for a 2015 guest conducting gig with the NSO that functioned as an audition for his present role.
In 1907, Casella created an orchestral version of Islamey, Mily Balakirev’s fiendishly difficult solo piano work, itself a transcription of folk music from the Caucasus region as well as the Crimea. Casella’s version retains the velocity and general rambunctiousness of the original “Oriental fantasy,” even if it sometimes comes across as overwritten and, well, gaudy. It also preserves the essential “Russian-ness” of Balakirev, one of Russia’s most nationalistic composers. It was this piece, which Noseda apparently is eyeing for a recording project, that opened the second part of the program, this time with a full-size orchestra filling the stage.
Noseda put his familiarity with Russian idiom to good use here. After a tentative start, the orchestra soon got into the swing of things, showing off Casella’s flair for color.
Another composer who has benefited from Noseda’s interest is Respighi. Although he’s known primarily for The Pines of Rome, Respighi’s excellent arrangements have never attracted the attention Noseda feels is their due. The concert concluded with his setting of Five Études-Tableaux by Rachmaninoff, which Noseda recorded in 2007, also with the BBC Philharmonic.
Rachmaninoff wrote 17 of these miniatures, each with a secret “program.” After conductor Serge Koussevitzky persuaded Respighi to create these transcriptions, Rachmaninoff, who supported the idea, revealed the secret concepts to Respighi, and these were spelled out in the program notes.
A gloomy seascape that managed to work in references to the Dies irae was up first, followed by a lively “Fair Scene” and a somber, martial Funeral March, complete with tolling bells. Then we got a rowdy version of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” with high violins representing Little Red Riding Hood and growling sounds for the wolf. The thundering March was a suitable finale to the evening, and to the festival.
There’s quite a bit of variety in this little suite, and Respighi’s orchestration is skillful and evocative. The orchestra sounded better here than in the previous works, more focused and precise. The nearly full house responded enthusiastically, as had been the case all evening.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.