The buildup to a new music director arriving is longer than the lead-up to a favorite holiday in childhood. In the case of Gianandrea Noseda, it took almost two years — from January 2016, when he was announced as the next musical leader of the National Symphony Orchestra, to Thursday night, when, after major back surgery, the cancellation of his planned public debut, and the gala season opener in September, he took the NSO's podium to lead his first subscription concert.
It was an exciting evening. The audience was abuzz. Time was, of course, when the prospect of a new music director of Noseda's international stature and acclaim would sell out the house. Sellouts hardly happen for the NSO anymore, even with the fangirl marketing department generating reams of breathless promotional material touching on every possible stereotype about Italian passion, love and expressivity in posters all over the city. Still, the house was healthily sold, and you might even say the breathless promotion didn't oversell the case. Noseda utterly charmed everyone in his remarks from the stage, but it was partly because of his palpable sincerity — his passion and expressivity, if you will. He clearly cares about the music and wants to bring it across.
Even on paper, Noseda's programming awakened high hopes for his first season, and this first program proved in practice to be as packed with delights as anticipated. "First night, two Opus Ones," the conductor quipped, indicating a leadoff with two young and relatively gentle works by two composers who from a general-audience perspective grew thorny in their maturity: Anton von Webern, active in the early 20th century, and Luigi Dallapiccola, active at its height. Webern's first opus is a Passacaglia that is enthusiastic and wide-ranging and was a little beyond the NSO on this particular night. Noseda has many virtues, but even he does not possess the magic bullet that can get everyone in this group to play together and with some shaping to its many complex musical lines.
Dallapiccola's Op. 1 is even more ambitious: a 20-minute Partita in four movements, a mini-symphony limned in evocative tone colors from the first movement, another Passacaglia, with its even melody framed by sinuous fillips of flute and the hiss of whispering cymbals, to its last, a lullaby for a soprano soloist. Corinne Winters, who has been featured at Wolf Trap and the Washington National Opera in recent years, sang with a beautiful auburn-colored soprano but sounded as if she could have used a couple more run-throughs to get the lovely and deceptively complex melody fully in her voice. This will be a program that could show some marked improvement by its next outing, on Saturday.
Once you learn what kinds of innovations a new maestro may bring, it's time to test him in the old. Noseda bounded back onto the stage after intermission and plunged into a vivid and breakneck opening of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," at a tempo and with a spark he couldn't quite maintain for the whole movement — but no matter. It was, overall, a delightful, engaging performance that brought a different and contrasting dimension to a varied evening.
A lot of things were packed into this program. The purported unifying theme was the idea of looking to the past, reaching to bygone musical forms, like the fugue in the Beethoven funeral march. The de facto theme, though, was a sense of the fun and interest of music. This orchestra has a long way to go to reach the top tier. But this concert made it seem it would be fun to go along for the ride.
The program repeats Saturday night at 8.