Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra at the opening night gala concert at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 22. (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)
Classical music critic

Gianandrea Noseda will be staying in Washington. One year into the conductor’s tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gary Ginstling, the orchestra’s executive director, announced a four-year contract extension, through 2024-2025, from the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall during the orchestra’s season-opening gala Saturday night.

The orchestra also announced that it has raised $10 million earmarked for special initiatives for Noseda and the orchestra, including an in-house digital media initiative, meaning that the NSO will record its own performances for streaming and for physical CD and DVD — starting with a set of the complete Beethoven symphonies to be released in 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

The announcement put to rest some anxieties that the popular Noseda might look elsewhere after the expiration of his initial contract at the end of the 2020-2021 season — concerns that were augmented with the announcement this summer that the conductor will take over as music director of the Zurich Opera in 2021-2022. (It is not unusual for major conductors to have at least two regular posts.)

It was also a high point of a gala that started with a lot of energy but showed an orchestra that still has a ways to go before becoming a true international contender. With the perennially popular theme of space in music (movements of Holst’s “The Planets” were a unifying link) and the ubiquitous Joshua Bell as soloist, it was hard to break out of a sense of business as usual. The NSO, at the beginning, promised to do just that, with a rousing rendition of the national anthem followed by a “Mars” that zinged and crackled. By the end, though, the group’s usual problems with playing together had reemerged.

Noseda’s commitment to the potential of this hit-and-miss group is clearly undaunted. When the Zurich post was announced, he himself pointed out that Zurich will simply replace the opera house in Turin, Italy, where he was music director from 2007 until his unexpected resignation because of governmental changes earlier this year.


Noseda and the NSO. (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)

This appointment will make Noseda the longest-serving NSO music director since Leonard Slatkin stepped down in 2008. Coming so early in his tenure, it also allows him and the orchestra to make concrete plans for significant work together. Noseda has already overseen the appointments of six new players to the orchestra, including filling the long-vacant spot of associate concertmaster, which Ying Fu will assume in January.

Other initiatives include an annual opera in concert performance; radio appearances in partnership with Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media; future tours to Europe and Asia; and a new concert series in partnership with the Anthem, the club where Noseda and the orchestra played last fall, to bring lower-priced live performances to new audiences. All of this builds on work Noseda has been doing, including initiating live concert broadcasts through Medici.tv, which streamed Saturday’s gala live (it will be available free through Oct. 21).

Now all that remains to be done is to make it an orchestra that people want to hear.

Galas are traditionally poor predictors of a season’s course, and this one seemed almost willfully reactionary: an old-fashioned pops concert of light classical work, strung together under a rubric no one much cared about (space suits and stormtroopers in the lobby notwithstanding). The program included a short piece the film composer Michael Giacchino (“The Incredibles,” “Coco”) wrote for the NSO earlier this year that sounded like a draft for an opening theme.

Bell, too, was in his pops mode. He offered playing that was downright slipshod in the first two pieces (an arrangement of the aria “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita”) but had flashes of brilliance through the sense of routine in an excerpt from Sarasate’s “Carmen” fantasy and “Zigeunerweisen.”

One frustration with the evening is that it didn’t seem to reflect the personality of the man of the hour: Noseda. His energetic conducting took the orchestra from fire to serenity (in an Italianate rendering of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”). What was missing was his ownership of the program, a moment after the first piece for him to say to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my orchestra.” There’s a lot in the season ahead, however, that could allow him to make that statement and deliver performances as memorable as, for instance, last year’s Verdi Requiem. It will take time to transform an orchestra that’s been allowed to develop some bad habits. And at the close of the evening, for the encore, Noseda did take hold, and returned the players to form with an all-American gesture: the Imperial March from “Star Wars.”