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Noseda leads Israel Philharmonic in a rousing French program

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's chief guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda. (Courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society)

I’ve heard Gianandrea Noseda conduct several times in the past, but I’ve never heard him, so to speak, in his element. Noseda has held a number of high-profile appointments (such as principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky in Russia for 10 years, the first non-Russian to hold the post). And he’s led a number of notable performances, such as “Prince Igor” at the Metropolitan Opera this season and, earlier, a “War Requiem” with the London Symphony Orchestra, that people are still raving about. I didn’t get quite this excitement from, for example, his 2011 debut with the National Symphony Orchestra or other times I’ve heard him at the Met.

But on Sunday night, the Washington Performing Arts Society brought him to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the Israel Philharmonic, where he is principal guest conductor, and for the first time, I was fully able to see what the fuss has been about.

The Israel Philharmonic’s ongoing American tour has been divided into two parts. The first section, including concerts in Chicago, Boston and New York, was led by the orchestra’s music director for life, Zubin Mehta, and featured Bruckner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The second section, including the Washington performance, is led by Noseda and concentrates entirely on French music: Fauré, Ravel and Berlioz. I suspect that Washington, in getting to hear these quietly compelling, often crystalline and finally exuberant readings, got the better end of the programming deal.

It was a long, packed program, focused entirely on the orchestra: These composers put an orchestra through its paces. The concert opened with Fauré’s suite from “Pélleas et Mélisande” — yes, Debussy wrote the opera, but Fauré got in ahead of him with incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play itself. The suite that collects this music shines with limpid clarity and narrative directness, at once layered and straightforward, from the rolling lilt of Mélisande’s spinning wheel in the second movement to the sorrowful cast of the fourth and final movement illustrating Mélisande’s death.

Ravel is the ultimate example of a composer who mingles childlike directness and textural intricacy, and the orchestra offered a double helping of him. Fauré’s fairy-tale tone was echoed and developed in “Ma Mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose), offered in a long suite that incorporated not only the orchestration of the original piano work, but also parts of the ballet Ravel later made of the material.

Having warmed up with a thorough flexing of all its muscles, the orchestra then shone in the second suite from another ballet, “Daphnis and Chloe,” which is a shimmering celebration of all the tones and colors an orchestra can muster, building, under Noseda, into a powerful explosion of sound that in this performance made one feel happy to be alive.

Noseda takes the stage with the air of a European business tycoon: the tailored suit, the athletic build. His conducting presents a similar juxtaposition between the buttoned-down and the passionate. He can approach lighter passages with an almost clinical air, as he did in the third movement of Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” which concluded the program: This country vignette was supremely elegant, and a little bit sterile. But at big moments, he opens up a broad wingspan, extending his arms, and thrusts himself on the music. No holds barred.

This contrast might have explained some of my reservations about him in the past; on Sunday, though, they both contributed to my enjoyment of a program of largely familiar music. The Berlioz, in particular, is tricky: The account of a man’s obsession with his beloved, it dwells on the “idee fixe” of the beloved’s theme to an extent that I often find cloying by the fourth or fifth movement. Noseda, however, kept everything moving, focusing on the varieties of expression rather than the theme’s reiteration, so that I lost myself in the sound of the orchestra and actually shivered when the once-sweet theme was converted into the reedy cackling of witches in the final movement.

The orchestra certainly offered some fine sound. The winds, in particular, got a major showing, and if the first flute was a little hoarse-sounding in one of several solos, for the most part they acquitted themselves beautifully. As an ambassador of Israel, this orchestra is often taken in a sense as making a political statement wherever it appears, but this concert’s main statement was about the importance of having an orchestra to begin with — not always a foregone conclusion, and all the more valuable for that.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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