Sure, Gianandrea Noseda can conduct an orchestra. But does anybody want to hear him? You do.
That’s what the National Symphony has been trying to get across for weeks, plastering the picture of their incoming music director on buses and ad kiosks all over Washington. That’s what the orchestra’s promotional video attempts to convey, in which Noseda and his wife pose around Washington looking like something out of a commercial while he talks about love and passion. And that’s the message that was repeated throughout the night.
But the first real test came when Noseda took the podium for the first time in his brand-new capacity at the orchestra’s opening-night gala Sunday. And he made a very convincing case.
It wasn’t just that he conducts well, either — after all, NSO audiences have already had several opportunities to hear him. It was that he conducted Bernstein well. The gala was also part of the opening weekend of the Kennedy Center’s season-long celebration of the centennial of the American musical icon. Rather than insisting on introducing himself officially to Washington with his own music, Noseda showed a commendable willingness to immerse himself in something a little different — and pull it off.
Most impressively, he showed some nearly idiomatic jazz-sounding chops in the set of five songs performed by the luminous Cynthia Erivo, elevating what on paper looked like an obligatory nod to the pops spectrum to the artistic and emotional highlight of the evening.
He didn’t quite sound so idiomatic in the “Candide” overture, the program’s opener. It was fluid, and the NSO certainly sounded energized, but this was Bernstein with a heavy Italian accent, its edges smoothed over. Noseda, of course, speaks with an Italian accent himself. “I cannot express you with my not-perfect English how much I feel welcome at the Kennedy Center,” he said from the podium, adding, in a clear statement of the night’s theme, “and as I feel welcome, I want you to feel welcome every time you come.” The audience, which had helped this year’s gala net a record $2 million, reacted with enthusiasm.
Yo-Yo Ma is a reliable opening-night highlight for many orchestras, but this time he didn’t entirely steal the show. The three meditations from “Mass” (the work that opened the Kennedy Center in 1971) are lovely but not showstoppers, especially the third one, a medley of tunes from throughout the piece. Noseda took a strikingly fast tempo for the opening meditation, perhaps trying to introduce some variation in the intensely introspective mood or simply to respond to the urgency of the music; and Ma played with intensity.
The program closed with the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” and here, too, despite an electric opening (complete with finger snapping), the operatic elegance of the reading ultimately dimmed the original’s energetic spark.
Still, it was an exhilarating night with a sense of new beginnings and new engagement, even in the obligatory onstage comments, including remarks from Gary Ginstling, the NSO’s brand-new executive director, who announced that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (though evidently not herself in attendance) had proclaimed Sept. 24, 2017, Gianandrea Noseda Day.
But what audiences both in the house and of the live broadcasts on Facebook and Medici.tv are most likely to remember are the songs, which bore out Noseda’s claims about music’s power to reflect on contemporary events. In “Take Care of This House” from the (failed) musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” it was hard not to hear contemporary relevance in the lines “This house is the house of us all” or “If someone makes off with a dream, the dream may be yours.” The audience interrupted the set with applause, and repeated it after Erivo’s beautiful reading of “Somewhere,” marred only by too much reverb from the mic. The set closed with the more upbeat and less loaded “I’m a Little Bit in Love,” as if to underscore that America’s performing arts center was not involving its new music director in any kind of political statement. In any case, the conductor, and the orchestra, and the season, got off to a very good start — leaving those who were there wanting more.