Conductor Gianandrea Noseda's NSO debut: A mixed performance

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:08 AM

Gianandrea Noseda is a towering figure on the podium.

You could take that statement figuratively: Noseda, the Italian conductor who made his National Symphony Orchestra debut Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, has an impressive resume that extends from posts in Turin, Italy, and Manchester, England, to regular positions in St. Petersburg (the first foreign principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre) and Pittsburgh, to several appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, including, most recently, Willy Decker's production of "La traviata" on New Year's Eve.

But the description is more appropriate in the literal sense. Noseda is a tall, spare figure. Standing high above the musicians, he hunches over them like a great bird of prey, spreading out an impressive wingspan, his arms embracing and exhorting with great vigor, as if physically pumping the music out of the players before him.

The results Thursday, though, were mixed. Noseda, at his best, got some good things out of the orchestra. But it looked and sounded as if it took a lot of work to get there.

The program was mixed, as well. It offered an appetizer, a concerto and a symphony, all safe enough, all from the 19th century, but without necessarily a lot holding them together.

It opened with a throwback: an opera overture, though one the NSO had never done before, to Smetana's "The Kiss," a rustic folk opera rife with tunes of a sort so thoroughly dated that it is hardly ever performed. It was pretty enough, and showed the kind of big sweeping romantic lines that Noseda seems to favor. The drawback to his big, expansive, generous gestures was that as translated into music by the NSO players, they often sounded heavy.

Continuing the orchestra's season-long focus on Beethoven was the Third Piano Concerto, featuring the venerable, acclaimed and eccentric pianist Radu Lupu. Noseda began with a crisp firmness, even a hint of buoyancy, that augured well for his conception of Beethoven's style. He and Lupu, however, were not an ideal partnership; Lupu dances to the beat of a different drummer (a beat he sometimes literally illustrated with little left-hand conducting gestures of his own), and his unevenness made Noseda strive all the more for a clarity that in the second movement degenerated into near plodding.

Lupu is a challenge for a conductor, and even for an audience. He has something important to say as an artist, with playing that is sometimes ethereal and often poetic; in the first-movement cadenza especially, it lifted off into visionary, mad-scientist territory. But his idiosyncratic poetry comes with ample helpings of dropped notes, and it requires a lot of space and support from the conductor to keep it together with the orchestra. It was a quirky and rather marvelous performance, but I'm sure it drove some people crazy.

After the intermission, Noseda went into the Russian repertory that is, for him, a kind of home turf (he's been associated with the Mariinsky since 1997) and supposedly represents one of the orchestra's strengths since the Rostropovich years. The piece was Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem "Manfred," a four-movement tone poem that goes through a panoply of 19th-century vignettes, including a second movement that sounds like Tchaikovsky's version of Mendelssohn at his most sprightly, with sequences of what Thursday were awfully metallic-sounding pizzicati.

It took a couple of movements for Noseda and the orchestra to hit their stride, but when they got on the same page, by the pastoral third movement, they shook off the sense of pounding out a beat and achieved some beautiful playing, through to the culminating organ choir (the concert hall organ doing its best to sound out against the acoustic canopy that conceals part of its pipework) before dying away reverently.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday night.

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