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Gemma New brings out a softer side of the NSO

A program of Vaughan Williams and Sibelius also featured violinist Jennifer Koh performing a world premiere piece by Missy Mazzoli

NSO guest conductor Gemma New. (Roy Cox)
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No offense to my man Ludwig, but we needed a break from each other this week. (It’s not him, it’s me.)

After three consecutive helpings of Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven & American Masters” festival, Thursday night’s program, led by guest conductor Gemma New, offered more than mere palate cleanser; it was an opportunity to hear the orchestra in an entirely different light. Or maybe it was more like a different state — something more vaporous.

Noseda and the NSO reveal more to be heard in Beethoven’s Third

The New Zealand-born New, music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario and principal guest conductor for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, made her NSO debut in January 2020, just weeks before the pandemic landed in the States.

For Thursday’s return to the podium, New eased the NSO into Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” with scarcely any attack at all — allowing it to rise and widen and deepen and darken. As meticulous as Beethoven was with his mechanics, Vaughan Williams was with his moods; and the “Fantasia,” which essentially introduced him as a major talent in 1910, offers an often thrilling glimpse of his harmonic strategies still in formation.

(Side note: If a break from Beethoven is the last thing you need, the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra performs the string orchestra arrangement of his Quartet for Strings in C-Sharp Minor on Feb. 12 and 13; Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the Ninth from April 7 through 10; and pianist Simone Dinnerstein will join the Fairfax Symphony for a gallop through the “Emperor” concerto on April 23.)

Part of the magic of this “Fantasia” is how it transforms its sacred source material — one of nine tunes Thomas Tallis wrote for the archbishop of Canterbury in 1567 — into something more like a sublime naturalism. At times it feels driven by the wind. New led the piece as though she were steering the weather, sweeping her arms to summon shifting colors to the surface. At times, New pulled the gauze of the music too thin; the return of the orchestra in full felt more like a rescue than a reward. But she also maintained firm control over the piece’s countering major and minor surges.

The program’s molten core was the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s “Violin Concerto (Procession)," a work in five short (mostly conjoined) movements. Like Vaughan Williams, Mazzoli taps into and transforms a hymnal history — albeit with a more “messed-up” (her words) twist.

Composed over the course of 2021, the concerto’s themes are inspired by medieval rituals that emerged through the Plague. (“It can always be worse,” Mazzoli deadpanned from the stage before the performance). Over its 20-minute run, Mazzoli conjures penitential processions, “melting hymns,” spells cast over broken bones and a conclusory ascent to the heavens. (And sure, that included some writhing in my seat here and there. Not everything needs to be nice.)

I wrote about violinist Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” commissioning project of one-minute works in April 2020, shortly after the arts plunged into the pandemic’s first uncertain depths. The resulting works, commissioned from 20 composers and performed by Koh, showcase a variety of voices but share a common rawness — a then-freshly pent-up collective ferocity that Koh transmutes with ease into lines bearing equal parts grace and fury.

How one violinist is rebuilding her musical community — one minute at a time

Koh and Mazzoli have a decade of collaborative work behind them — including a short piece for “Alone Together” — and the “Violin Concerto” puts this long-brewed chemistry on full display. It’s an unsettling work that opens like a trapdoor, or the moment you fall asleep.

Koh didn’t ride atop the orchestra so much as engage in a prolonged tug-of-war with it — her solos tensing like a tendon within the body of the music. She attacked short solos as if she were sawing through a pipe; elsewhere she strung silvery threads through a dense fabric of dark strings and darting flutes. Her slow-burning centerpiece cadenza was a searing highlight of the evening.

I’d be fibbing if I said the fog surrounding Foggy Bottom and hovering around the campus of the Kennedy Center through intermission didn’t set the tone for Sibelius’s Fifth.

The Fifth — composed as a centerpiece for a national celebration of the Finnish composer’s 50th birthday in 1915 — is a symphony that passively embraces your perception like a landscape. At all times, it gives the impression of a vast distance surveyed, a vista studded with mountains, a vantage unfettered by a frame. It is music in service of scale.

As such, many of the Fifths I’ve grown most attached to over the decades have taken the work’s capacity for grandeur as an invitation to play God for half an hour. I’m thinking of Koussevitzky leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1945; Karajan leading the Berlin Philharmonic in 1965; Ashkenazy leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1980.

New’s approach to Sibelius brought to mind Noseda’s approach to Beethoven — a heightened attention to detail and texture without complete deference to drama. Those elemental forces that New summoned in the Vaughan Williams came in quite handy for the Fifth. She elevated the tectonic shifts of its earthy lower registers in the first movement; and she let the strings gather and build in whipping gusts around the foothills of the third.

Like the “Fantasia,” the Fifth draws its power from rich passages of gleaming, sun-flooded concordance. New brought a unique sensitivity to the task, negotiating the symphony’s balance of beauty and beast without obscuring Sibelius’s fondness for darker brushstrokes to better bring out the bright ones. Even as she released the swans at its famously soaring finale, there was a lightness to it, a softness to their departure that felt unexpectedly welcome.

“Gemma New & Jennifer Koh” repeats Friday at Capitol One Hall and Saturday at the Kennedy Center. capitalonehall.com and kennedy-center.org

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