The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ending his season with a bang: Noseda offers an American program, of sorts, with the NSO

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra at the Anthem on Wednesday. (John Shore)

“It’s interesting when the orchestra knows the music better than the conductor,” Gianandrea Noseda deadpanned from the Kennedy Center stage Thursday night.

It was Noseda’s final program of the National Symphony Orchestra’s season, his second with the orchestra, and one of those times when the ensemble attempts to justify the word “National” in its name with a nod to American programming. The piece in question was Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid” suite, which Noseda was leading for the first time.

Of course, that didn’t matter. As Noseda pointed out, Copland had no experience of the American West when he wrote the piece, yet he had no trouble creating the kind of evocative “American” music he became known for. And Noseda, a born dramatist on the podium — and a quick study, as any international conductor has to be these days — had no trouble leading it vividly and fluidly.

Noseda has certainly been leading the orchestra all over the city. Last week, a free concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception drew a capacity crowd of 6,000, one of the most attended events the Basilica has ever hosted. On Wednesday, the orchestra was in street clothes playing at the Anthem, the large club at the Southwest Waterfront where the orchestra makes regular appearances.

For this fourth visit, about 1,500 people were there to hear them play the same music they would play at the Kennedy Center the following night — smartly showing their strengths rather than making concessions to a different audience. Last week’s subscription program was streamed on Facebook; this week’s was to be recorded for audio release, a test run to make sure everything is in place for next season’s recording of the nine Beethoven symphonies. (The orchestra made its last commercial recording in 2011.)

Something’s working. Noseda is apparently becoming an audience draw; the Concert Hall looks fuller when he performs. Even more important, he’s getting results from the orchestra. The NSO still doesn’t offer the most taut ensemble-playing — the “Billy the Kid” at the Kennedy Center was far better, in that regard, than it had been at the Anthem, and there were a couple of bobbles in Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” though the strings were lustrous and fine. But it is audibly more energetic and involved when Noseda is on the podium. He’s hard to resist; you can debate his approach or his interpretation, but there’s no questioning his energy and commitment. Not only is Noseda a capable conductor with a point of view, but he’s also palpably eager to be liked and eager to be effective, and the orchestra seems to be going along with it.

The evening offered a simulacrum of an American program, polished and shiny. After the Copland, the American element in the second work was the soloist, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who was making her NSO debut but who is no stranger to Washington (most recently in the Washington National Opera’s “Barber of Seville”). Replacing Anita Rachvelishvili, who was to have sung Berio’s arrangements of folk songs but withdrew last month, Leonard stepped in to offer Berio’s orchestrations of De Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs,” which are popular in mezzo-soprano recitals.

Leonard, too, is polished, with a rich voice that she uses with care, precision and seriousness. What was missing, though, was a sense of fun. There’s a lot of humor in these songs, and Berio clearly had fun orchestrating them, puffing up the flirtatious “Jota” with fluffy instrumental effects or sending trombones skittering beneath the whipping cords of “Polo.” But Leonard was all sultry intensity, and business, and was therefore at her best in slower songs such as “Asturiana.” She did lighten her mood for the encore, “Granada,” but this staple of tenor showmanship wasn’t a natural fit.

The final American element was Dvorak’s beloved Ninth Symphony, called “From the New World” and written when the Czech composer was running the National Conservatory of Music in New York. As the musicologist Douglas Shadle has pointed out, Dvorak followed an active trend in American composition in the 1880s and 1890s by drawing on spirituals and Native American music for his piece; many of the themes in the Ninth Symphony derive from his opera “Hiawatha,” based in part on music he heard at something called the Kickapoo Medicine Show. You wouldn’t necessarily know that to hear the symphony, though — apart from its spiritual-evoking second movement, whose theme “Going Home” wasn’t a spiritual but is often mistaken for one. Overall, it’s an energetic Romantic European symphony, with singable themes and the ruddy warmth that Dvorak’s music reliably exudes.

Noseda made it especially malleable, softening to lissome pianissimi before whipping up the orchestra into frenzies. A woman in front of me was dancing along in her seat. Who cares where the music is from when Noseda knows how it goes — and keeps us coming back for more?

The program repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Starting June 14, the NSO offers a three-part series called “Mozart Forever,” conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann.

A conductor performed in a D.C. public school. The result? Mixed marks.

The secret, jet-setting life of a world-famous conductor

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra cancels summer season