Leonard Bernstein had a number of students, but in this year of his centenary, there may not be many of them left unknown. However, Yutaka Sado is evidently one of them, at least in this country. His performance with the NSO on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center was his debut not only with the orchestra — even though he was an assistant to Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, and has a thriving career in Europe and Asia — but in the United States.
This is all the more striking since the performance revealed him to be a conductor of great assurance and showmanship — certainly as good or better than many others with higher profiles.
It's normal in such situations to open with a shot across the bow, though on paper the overture to Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie" looked more like froth than the tightrope act it was to become. Sado kept his gestures so minimal in places that it was hard to imagine how the orchestra could detect a beat at all, but the result was a kind of hyperfixation on him and a taut alertness from the players that escalated into high-voltage electricity when he actually did begin to gesture. The result was a roller-coaster ride: thrilling, and a little exhausting.
For the rest of the evening, though, Sado's gestures were big and generous, building several times into the kind of intense freneticism that's more associated than restraint with his late mentor. The centerpiece of the evening was Bernstein's own second symphony, "The Age of Anxiety," offered as part of the ongoing Bernstein centennial, with an expansive clarity borne out by the soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (who played the same piece here with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2010). This piece, written in 1949 (before "West Side Story" and "Candide" impressed us with "signature" Bernstein), is a tortured autobiography showing a young man striving for greatness and inclusion — laying out, in short, Bernstein's lifelong themes, and Thibaudet can sink his teeth into its effusive blend of the virtuosic and the maudlin.
Sado was a clear collaborator, and one eager to showcase the orchestra soloists before taking his own bow; but the orchestra sounded a little less taut than it had in the Rossini and continued to fray a bit on the second half of the program.
The conductor's main weakness is one he shares with Christoph Eschenbach in this hall: Even more than Eschenbach, he tended to swamp the strings with the brass, bringing out inner voices and percussion accents so strongly that the main string melodies sometimes vanished beneath the wave-crashes of cymbals. Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" became a violent seascape under a sky of metal. Not that he relinquished control. He gave lots of air and space to the music so that in, for instance, the clarinet solo in "Francesca," time seemed to stop around the instrument's suspended voice.
But the orchestra lacked the hairpin precision to do full justice to his concept, so that at moments toward the end, the Tchaikovsky seemed to flag. The same could be said, at moments, of the varied and imposing reading of Ravel's "Bolero," which grew as steadily and organically as one could wish, and which allowed the solo instruments — the saxophone, the trombone — the space and freedom to put their own inflections on the theme, but which toward its climax started to get a tiny bit heavy-handed as the orchestra carried out its drumming march with slightly flat feet. And then suddenly Sado swept in, brilliantly, with a woozy ending that made it sound as if the whole carefully constructed edifice was about to collapse in on itself, restoring a sense of shock and wonder at the finish.
In short, it was an exhilarating performance, if not a perfect one, from a conductor who comes endorsed by the NSO's music director, Gianandrea Noseda (he is principal guest conductor of the Teatro Regio, Noseda's home theater), and should certainly be doing more in this country. Among his listeners was a baby mouse, who diverted some of the audience by making his way laboriously up and down the aisle, as if seeking to escape the waves of sound washing all around him.
The program repeats Saturday night at 8.