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In NSO opener, Noseda shows you don’t have to dumb down to have fun

Gianandrea Noseda led the NSO in its season-opening gala concert on Sept. 28. (Scott Suchman)
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Gianandrea Noseda has learned reams of music in his years as a conductor, but he clearly hasn’t studied the national anthem of the United States. Heavy on the downbeats, his reading of that season-opening staple was the only weak link on the orchestra’s unusually lively and engaging opening gala on Saturday night.

No conductor would give much thought to the national anthem in an evening that offered so many unfamiliar and deceptively tricky works, including a healthy dose of American ones. For all of the evening’s actual performances, Noseda displayed lightness on his feet, literally, swaying with his hips to Bernstein’s dance tunes in his “Divertimento for Orchestra,” or leaning insouciantly against the railing of his podium during Shostakovich’s utterly beguiling “Suite for Jazz Orchestra.”

The NSO is in the best place it’s been in for years, and you can’t always tell on paper just how far the orchestra has come. When you put Bernstein and Gershwin (“An American in Paris”) on an opening-night program, you might expect you were getting business as usual. But in practice, this program managed to be at once unfamiliar and invigorating and as purely entertaining and light as you could wish for on an evening that’s supposed to be more festive than earnest. I suppose, as a critic, I should be tut-tutting that they didn’t play a contemporary work, but I was too busy enjoying the spectacle of an orchestra reminding listeners that you don’t have to dumb down to have fun.

Take the piece at the evening’s heart: Shostakovich’s second piano concerto — hardly a repertory chestnut. Sprightly and fizzy, it was written for the composer’s then-teenage son, and was a wonderful fit for the pianist Yuja Wang, who offers plenty of fizz all on her own with playing that’s as quick, clear and zingy as electrical current, sparking over the keys while she sits almost still, a conduit, sometimes seeming motionless above the elbow. It was one of the most entertaining performances I’ve heard for some time, simply because it was so satisfyingly good.

And the orchestra sounded, for the most part, as if they were having fun, too. Admittedly the evening lagged a little in two of the more diverting works, Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka” and “Scherzo a la Russe,” in part because the intermissionless performance, with requisite speeches from Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and newly elected NSO Board Chairman Ronald D. Abramson, went on just a scooch too long. (After announcing that the event had raised more than $1.5 million for the orchestra, and reminding everyone that they could still donate to the $250 million, just-opened extension the Reach, Rubenstein read off a long list of luminaries in attendance, only to inadvertently stop the show when the mention of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — she was sitting in a balcony — sparked a long ovation.)

But it was the players’ verve that marked the night. The Shostakovich was a showpiece for some of the orchestra’s soloists, including concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, in sinuous smoky meanderings that Noseda charmingly equated, in his remarks to the audience, with the atmosphere in a cellar bar with “a lot of liquids.” (Noseda’s off-the-cuff remarks included an explanation of the shared etymology of the Russian words for “water” and “vodka.”) And the Gershwin piece — recently, like “Porgy and Bess,” stripped of layers of accumulated varnish by a new critical edition — sounded lithe and energetic. Most importantly, perhaps, the evening felt more genuine than the norm, without the striving to be something or take a stand that has been evident at some past opening-night galas. It felt like the start of a good year. Let’s hope it is one.

The NSO and Noseda will perform “Carmina Burana” on Oct. 3, 4 and 5.