Nationalism and its consequences were on the bill for the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night: three works, by three heroes of their respective homelands — Edvard Grieg, Antonin Dvorak and Carl Nielsen — spanning the era from nationalism’s late-19th-century apotheosis to its early-20th-century implosion. The performance, though, offered even more localized politics: negotiations between top-down leadership and individual initiative.

On the podium was English conductor Edward Gardner, making his third appearance with the NSO. The past couple of NSO guest conductors had no qualms about micromanaging. Gardner was more hands-off, vigorously showing the beat, mood and contour of a passage, then letting the musicians connect the dots. The result was vivid playing and intimate phrasing but also some wonky balances and hazy entrances. Both sides were apparent in the opener, Grieg’s “Lyric Suite,” daubs of Norwegian color orchestrated from his 1891 piano collection. The effect was like a designer scarf tossed over the shoulder — stylish charm but casual ensemble.

Dvorak’s 1895 Cello Concerto traditionally has been interpreted as a longing for his Czech home. The last piece composed during his three-year stay in the United States, it seems to make the distance between soloist and orchestra more acute, a quality that cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, making his NSO debut, further emphasized. His playing elevated every opportunity for lyricism. The concerto became a dramatic push-pull, the orchestra launching ideas in extroverted fashion, Altstaedt refashioning them as interior monologue. It played down the work’s more obvious virtuosity; Altstaedt’s soft passages often seemed to project farther into the hall than his loud ones. But his superb skill at singing tones and eloquent disquisition won out. The close, Altstaedt picking up concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef’s line and reducing it to stillness, was exquisite.

Gardner had tightened up his approach a bit in the Dvorak (literally — you could see the hinges of his elbows stiffen up slightly). In Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “The Inextinguishable,” that tightness seemed to undulate, sometimes to fascinating effect. Composed against the backdrop of the World War I, the work is an extraordinary document, a self-proclaimed celebration of music as a life force nevertheless heavily marked by violence, its Danish folk influence both obvious and subsumed. Sections of looser coordination allowed the solo lines to emerge with individual personality — the principal winds providing especially concise character touches — but left the whole with a soft-edged sense of standard orchestral uplift. But then the ensemble would snap into focus and one could glimpse what Nielsen was really up to, phalanxes of complex sound to “chop the silence into pieces,” as he once put it.

The finale, with timpanists Jauvon Gilliam and Scott Christian volleying thunder from opposite sides of the stage, led to less a unified resolution than a heterogeneous catharsis. For better or for worse, Nielsen seems to say, we’re all in it together.

The program repeats Sunday at 3 p.m.