Gianandrea Noseda, the National Symphony Orchestra’s next music director, is a man easy in his own skin. Sitting in the lobby bar of a New York hotel on a weekend afternoon, incognito and unrecognized, he’s direct, open, funny. Some conductors need to impress you. Noseda isn’t after anything that simple.
He’s naturally impressive, of course. He’s tall and imposing, with the blond hair (thinning on top) and blue eyes of a Northern Italian. On the podium, he arcs and curves his big arms with embracing abandon. Musicians call him charismatic, demanding and inspiring. He favors fast tempos that drive the music but have a sense of lightness at the same time.
Offstage, he’s less overtly dramatic. He probes, in conversation, the way he describes probing a score, looking for deeper meanings and connections.
“The point is not to convince [the orchestra] your thought about the symphony is the best possible one in the world,” he says. “But it is a possibility. It is a possibility suggested by the score, because you spent time with the score and tried to discover the hidden meaning behind the notes what possibly the composer wanted to say. And the frustration for a conductor is even if you have this aim, you are sure you cannot get it.
“Every time you perform that symphony, you go back to the score; you probably discover some more. But even if one day you say, ‘Oh, maybe now I know,’ the next day, you think, ‘I was completely wrong.’ That’s why even if I conduct a symphony 10 times, it’s like a world premiere of that symphony.”
Even Beethoven’s Fifth. Especially Beethoven’s Fifth. “How to go back to the shocking reaction the first audience got with that da-da-da-dum?” he says. “I don’t even imagine the orchestra playing together, those first four notes. But even so, even screwing up, probably the reaction was, ‘What is that?’ ”
And how do you achieve that now, with notes worn smooth by familiarity? He says, “You have to surprise yourself every time you touch this gold we have in our hands, left by the big geniuses of the past.”
He talks about music. He talks about his own training, first in Italy as a student of composition and piano, then as a conductor, going to Russia and working nine hours a day in the Mariinsky Theatre after Valery Gergiev named him that company’s first foreign-born principal guest conductor, in 1997. (“I learn why the Russians sometimes drink a little bit too much,” he says of his grueling schedule in St. Petersburg. “After nine hours, I went back home, and I needed at least 50 grams of vodka.”) He talks about what he learned in his 11 years in the efficient world of British orchestras when he was principal conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. He talks about life on the road with his wife, Lucia, whom he met when they were students at the Milan Conservatory and who travels with him. (“In a very not normal life, we try to live a normal life,” he says.)
He does it all affably. He gives the feeling of being someone who, on or off the podium, at home or in company, is very much himself.
“When somebody is so comfortable with conducting and with the idea of being in front of an orchestra that they can just be themselves, everything feels very natural,” says Daniel Foster, the NSO’s principal violist and one of five musicians on the 13-member search committee that picked Noseda to succeed Christoph Eschenbach next year. When Noseda last conducted the orchestra in November — the scheduled guest performances that led rapidly to the current announcement — Foster says: “I was personally really excited by the rehearsals and by the concerts. And that’s pretty much all there is. If you’re excited by both of those things, that’s good.”
The news, announced Monday, was received with an outpouring of joy. In a field known for prima donnas, Noseda appears to be widely loved.
“Gianandrea is a very genuine, warm human being,” says Robert Moir, former senior vice president of artistic planning for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where Noseda first appeared in 2005, only a couple of years after he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2002, replacing Gergiev for a few performances of “War and Peace.” The orchestra soon created the title Victor de Sabata Principal Guest Conductor for Noseda, who held it for years and still appears regularly with the orchestra.
“Yes, he is very demanding,” Moir adds. “But I have never seen anyone — musician, librarian, staff — be in the slightest way resistant to what he’s demanding, or resentful of his demands. He is very much a servant of the music, so when he’s demanding on the stage, he inspires the musicians to want the exact same level of perfection that he’s striving for. They are all together striving for the same idea.”
On a recent visit, when Noseda and his wife got sick at the end of a stay in Pittsburgh, their apartment was visited by a steady stream of musicians bearing chicken soup and home-baked goods to try to tempt them back to health.
You could ask why someone so popular, so talented, so able has not been snapped up yet by another orchestra. Noseda has enjoyed perpetual bridesmaid status with a few other major ensembles that have embraced him eagerly but turned to others as music director. Famous and established as he is, Noseda, 51, has not yet entered the hall-of-fame status and name recognition that comes, in part, through having a major orchestra of one’s own. He is perhaps the starriest and most talented conductor ever to come the NSO’s way; but he also needs the orchestra as much as it needs him. He could provide the artistic leadership the orchestra needs to go to the next level; the orchestra could provide him with the home in the States he’s been hoping for.
Whether he will get an apartment in Washington is still a matter of family discussion. Because his schedule was already full, he was able to commit only to eight weeks in his first full season in 2017 and 2018, moving up to 12 weeks for the three seasons after that. But as someone eager to engage with the community, who makes himself at home even in apartments and cities where he stays for a far more limited time — such as Pittsburgh, where, Moir said, “he became a personality in town,” even in only two weeks a year.
“In Manchester, we got an apartment and kept it,” Noseda says, speaking of his 11 years with the BBC. “Because it is nice when you travel and go over the ocean to feel you go in a place where you can find your T-shirts.”
Noseda is loyal. He has been with the same manager since the beginning of his career. His allegiance to Gergiev, and to the network of artists he worked with in St. Petersburg, is unswerving; Washington might look for Gergiev to guest conduct, or perhaps for a performance or two by soprano Anna Netrebko, who has appeared with him at a number of his notable debuts — including this summer’s “Trovatore” at the Salzburg Festival, in Austria — and recorded several of her solo albums with him. The violinists Leonidas Kavakos and James Ehnes are frequent collaborators with him. Noseda also, incidentally, used to conduct ballet in his Mariinsky days. Flexibility is one of his strengths. But for him, orchestras come first.
“I am not an opera conductor,” he says, rather disingenuously, given that he’s one of the most sought-after opera conductors today. “In my house, my father, who was an amateur musician, a choral director, he always got recordings of symphonies for me. I got close to the opera much later.” “Much later” turns out to mean age 13, when he heard Carlos Kleiber conduct “Otello” in a live broadcast from La Scala, in Milan, and was hooked.
He’s also a realist. He knows that the NSO isn’t viewed as one of America’s leading orchestras, although his excitement at the possibilities offered by the orchestra’s talent and the resources of the Kennedy Center are palpable. He knows the Kennedy Center Concert Hall doesn’t have great acoustics. “But actually when I conducted there two years ago, with the Israel Philharmonic,” he says, “I didn’t feel the same way I felt in 2011, [about the] acoustics. I thought, ‘Oh, I remember much drier, less helpful and friendly acoustics.’ And also this time, [in November], I have to say I was not negatively shocked.” He then cites other orchestras, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which have surmounted challenging acoustics and had wonderful results.
And he knows that some of the problems of the NSO are shared by the orchestra world at large.
“This is the biggest challenge we have to face,” he says. “Just how to make an orchestra be part of the society in the 21st century. Continue to deliver the highest possible quality, and yet to be seen as a modern part of a normal life, and not just something connected with the golden age of the past. Everybody is facing that. Who will find the solution will be the winner.”
“That’s why I’m desperate to find that myself,” he adds, “just to see what others are doing, just to be inspired. I’m not worried. I’m thrilled. I know the responsibility.”