Gianandrea Noseda, the new music director, National Symphony Orchestra. (Stefano Pasqualetti)
Classical music critic

The conductor was scheduled to lead a youth orchestra the day after an opera. His back had been hurting for some time, but he dosed it with Advil and continued to work. He didn't have time to worry about his health. He was embarking on one of the busiest summers of his career. 

Except that when he woke up that morning, he could barely move. He and his wife called a taxi to get him to his orchestra engagement. But when the taxi pulled up to deliver him to the theater, he couldn’t get out of the car. He had to driven straight to the emergency room.

“You have to be operated on within 72 hours,” the doctor told him.

Naturally, the conductor sought a second opinion. The second doctor told him he had to be operated on — within 48 hours. “I lost a day,” the conductor says, “getting the second opinion.”

The conductor is Gianandrea Noseda, the internationally known Italian who will lead his first official concert as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Noseda, 53, was going to sweep in as a new broom in July with an altogether different kind of opening: a free concert on the Mall, signaling a new beginning for the orchestra with a new, charismatic, high-profile conductor.

But then came the emergency back surgery, in June, for what turned out to be a herniated disk. So instead of a triumphant summer of performances at major festivals from Verbier, Switzerland, to St. Petersburg, Russia, to the Mostly Mozart festival in New York, as he had expected, he found himself on an unprecedented, 50-day break from doing any conducting at all. He sat at home with his wife, Lucia, learning music, doing physical therapy, memorizing cantos of Dante's "Divine Comedy" to pass the time, and trying not to dwell on existential questions about his future in a career that, particularly as he practices it, relies on considerable physical exertion.

Thus Noseda’s biggest “first” this summer came on a cool August evening in Scotland, where the Teatro Regio Torino, the company he has led for 10 years, was starting a week-long residency at the Edinburgh International Festival with a production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” — the opera he was conducting right before his surgery.

The Teatro Reggio has not historically been a company that got this kind of prestigious invitation — not, at least, until Noseda began taking it on international tours, such as a 2014 outing of Rossini’s “William Tell” that the New York Times called “one of New York’s operatic highlights of recent years.” The Teatro Reggio has also been a rare island of stability in the volatile Italian theater landscape: It’s the only company in Italy that has neither gone on strike nor gone into the red since 1996, when Walter Vergnano became general manager. As a result, Noseda has been able to work steadily on improving its musical forces — aided, since 2014, by Gaston Fournier-Facio, who has aspired to raise its productions to the same level as its music. The Edinburgh invitation was a sign that people are noticing; the opening night of “Macbeth” was sold out.

Noseda’s longtime manager, Ettore Volontieri, was nervous. Nobody knew quite what to expect after the conductor’s long break, but Noseda’s schedule made no allowances for incapacity. The day before, his first day back on the podium, he had rehearsed for nearly eight hours. Volontieri has represented Noseda for 22 years, the bulk of his career— a rarity in a business in which artists often change management on their way up the career ladder, and testimony to Noseda’s loyalty.

Within the past couple of years, thanks, in part, to Volontieri, Noseda has been transitioning to a new level of success. Having started conducting studies relatively late, at 27, he has always felt a need to catch up. The career of a major conductor is divided between guest appearances and permanent posts, and Noseda’s long-term posts have thus far been with mid-level houses — such as the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England, which landed him on the map in 2005 when the BBC released his recordings of the first five Beethoven symphonies as free downloads, and got more than a million hits.

These days, the conductor is flying higher, regularly appearing with the likes of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic, and newly installed as co-principal guest conductor of the august London Symphony Orchestra. And his calendar is so full that the NSO had to schedule his inaugural concert in July, rather than, more logically, in the fall, when the season was actually starting. It was the only free slot Noseda could offer.

Success, so far, seems to have had a positive effect on him. “Gianandrea is a very strong personality,” says Fournier-Facio. “The more he becomes an international figure, the stronger his personality develops. But that can be a positive thing. Because he becomes more sure, more confident with himself, and then it becomes easier to work with him.”

Now, Volontieri was just concerned about his client’s health. Noseda conducts with a particularly energetic style, bending forward toward the players, arms outstretched. If you’re thinking about sore backs, just looking at pictures is enough to make you wince.

Most of the audience, of course, didn’t realize that the conductor entering the orchestra pit was returning to work for the first time in a while. And once the music of “Macbeth” started, even Noseda’s familiars began to forget, as the eeriness of a horror film, in a score Noseda has called “sort of noir,” emanated from the whispery, other-wordly high strings and raw brass in the overture. The production was uneven but included some powerful moments — which might not have worked as well as they did without the support of such taut choral singing and nuanced orchestra playing. Noseda has hired at least 17 musicians in Torino, and the level of the orchestra reflects his influence.

"One thing I really respect about him," says Gary Ginstling, the NSO's brand-new executive director, who has known Noseda since he was general manager of the Cleveland Orchestra when the conductor made his debut there in 2013, "is that he's not only a great musician on the podium, but a great institutional leader and builder. I think that's going to be great for the NSO."

The production also reflected Noseda's restless musical curiosity. He has made a trademark of exploration, both of the standard repertoire and little-known work — championing, for instance, the symphonies of the neglected 20th-century Italian composer Alfredo Casella. Noseda keeps a tally of how many different pieces he has conducted: he's up to 640, and some of his offerings with the NSO this year, such as John Adams's "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," will add to that total. For "Macbeth," Noseda reverted to the original ending, a solo aria for Macbeth that Verdi later replaced with an oddly bouncy chorus — and that, in this production, made a powerfully effective close.

And then the curtain calls began, and finally Noseda’s distinctive tall figure emerged from the wings, walked gingerly to center stage, and inclined a little bit from the waist in a restrained but happy bow.

Backstage, Edinburgh yielded to the south with a sea of Italians washing around the dressing rooms and up to Noseda’s closed door, where the maestro, in unwonted seclusion, was doing his new PT exercises. Noseda’s relationship with his players is warm but intense.

“He’s very friendly and he goes out for a meal with the orchestra members,” Fournier-Facio says, “but in rehearsals he can be very very demanding, very tough.” The players take it in stride. “The orchestra is the first one to understand that they are going places on the shoulders of Gianandrea,” Fournier-Facio says — places such as Edinburgh, Oman or Paris (where they’ll take “Macbeth” in October). “They know he is a good investment.” Not every orchestra is so understanding of his “toughness.” Noseda says there are differences in culture that can take a while to figure out. “In Russia,” he says, “you have to be more like Gergiev, more direct. If you [only] say, ‘That’s not quite working,’ they will ignore you. In Britain you have to be straightforward; you can be quite honest, but not rude.”

The door finally opened to reveal the glowing, sweaty conductor extolling the benefits of his special conducting chair, which forces him to sit forward, bearing weight on his legs and strengthening his core muscles. “All the time I am conducting,” he said, “I have to remember not to bend over.” (He may continue to use the chair for opera performances, but not when he’s onstage with a symphony orchestra.)

The haze of goodwill and congratulations was punctured by the entrance of Lucia, tall, radiant, and looking happy and slightly concerned. A former singer who met Noseda at the Milan Conservatory, the conductor’s wife travels with him, sometimes coaches the singers he works with on their diction, and cooks, by all accounts, marvelously. She gave a little congratulatory coo, tried to restrain herself, and then said, “Excuse me, but I have to . . .” and gave her husband a heartfelt kiss. “I was so worried!” she said a moment later. But clearly, everything was fine, and Noseda’s return was a success.

At lunch the next day, Noseda was his normal, expansive, upbeat self. Life had resumed; the performance had gone well. He felt fine, and 50 days, after all, was not such a very long time to have taken off. Edinburgh marked a return to form; the company went on to perform "La boheme" and the Verdi Requiem, to full houses and glowing reviews. This month, they had a success with "Aida" in Oman. And as the summer's crisis faded into hindsight, the conductor found a silver lining in the enforced rest: From now on, he says, he is going to take a month off every summer. The leisure, involuntary though it was, had felt like a luxury. "If I had the time," he said, "I would be the laziest man you can imagine."

The NSO season opens Sunday night with an all-Bernstein gala; Noseda returns in November and December for his first subscription programs.