The unifying theme of the evening was Bach, but there wasn’t a single piece entirely by that composer on the program. It was a program by three B’s, but not the three B’s that classical listeners expect: The composers were Berio, Berg and Brahms. Every piece was involving. And the Brahms brought down the house. Gianandrea Noseda went out with a bang Thursday night, at the start of his final subscription program of his first season with the National Symphony Orchestra, and the ensemble banged right along with him.
The orchestra had its share of slips. But there was so much going on, and so much audible energy onstage, that a little roughness didn’t spoil the enjoyment. There was a sense of vitality to the playing, befitting the programming, starting with Luciano Berio’s 2001 arrangement of Bach’s Contrapunctus XIX, which handed off lines from one instrument to another, high to low and string to wind across the reduced orchestra, giving a reckless sense of propulsion to this brilliant and intricate music. Bach never finished the piece, and Berio let the music drive off a cliff and hang suspended in a sudden revelation of the utterly unknown: an enigma limned in overtones and the long decay of sustained notes.
Noseda has been happy to work with a wide range of soloists this year, some for the first time, but the violinist James Ehnes is one of his preferred collaborators, and Ehnes’s performance of Alban Berg’s violin concerto showed why. This concerto is known as a defiant oxymoron, a ravishingly beautiful 12-tone piece — not only is it beautiful, but it also incorporates a folk tune and, yes, a Bach chorale. Noseda’s fluid line supported Ehnes’s shining one, mounting to big, dark drama and another suspended ending that was more decisive, closing the parenthesis that Berio’s ending had left open.
In orchestra programming, the new has to be balanced with the familiar, or so conventional wisdom has it, and thus it was that this concert ended with the Brahms 4th Symphony, which ends with a passacaglia based on a theme from a Bach cantata. But this was a Brahms 4th as vital and fresh as anything on the program’s first half. Although Noseda began with what looked like generic pot-stirring of his whirling arms, and the orchestra had some hitches in the exposition, they achieved a fierce fluidity in a reading that was at once warm (the word “Italianate” came to mind) and searing. It was a definitive close to a promising first season.
It was a final close for five of the orchestra musicians, retiring after a combined 183 years of service, including the violinists Peter Haase (34 years) and Holly Hamilton (40 years) and the violist William Foster, who has been with the orchestra for 50 years and played under six of its seven music directors — and whose son, Daniel, is the NSO’s principal viola. Some of them will continue to perform until the NSO season comes to an end in June. Not mentioned in the remarks honoring the departing players was the dedicatee of the evening’s concert, another long-serving violinist, Hyun-Woo Kim, a member of the orchestra since 1978, who died unexpectectly last week at 66. Perhaps the musicians’ desire to honor a lovely and kind colleague gave the evening a little extra spark.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.