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Noseda, NSO find the fun in a sacred and profane program

Fun on the podium: Gianandrea Noseda leads the NSO at last week’s opening-night gala. This week, they take on “Carmina Burana.”
Fun on the podium: Gianandrea Noseda leads the NSO at last week’s opening-night gala. This week, they take on “Carmina Burana.” (Scott Suchman / KCMedia - Kenned/The Kennedy Center)

Gianandrea Noseda brings fun into music. This isn’t a side of him I saw or understood until he came to the National Symphony Orchestra. As a guest conductor, he struck me as earnest; with his own orchestra, he dances. On Thursday night, the first concert of the subscription season, he led the way exuberantly through Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” offering a performance that was at once fleet and nuanced, so that even the blast of “O Fortuna” — the famous and overplayed segment that opens and closes this multipart work — had details and dapplings of light in place of the traditional wall of sound.

From the sacred to the profane: so ran an evening that Noseda, looking out at the crowded auditorium, approvingly observed was made up entirely of 20th-century works. Those audience members may have come for “Carmina Burana,” or for Noseda himself, but likely didn’t come to hear Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral” or Francis Poulenc’s “Litanies a la Vierge Noire,” the two short appetizers to Orff’s heavy smorgasbord of a main course.

“Blue Cathedral” evokes a fictive space of worship, “a glass cathedral in the sky,” the composer wrote in a program note, outlined in firm clear lines of music, including solos for flute and clarinet, surrounded by the shine and drip of percussion instruments, liquid and luminous as melting ice.

Poulenc’s “Litanies” represents his first religious work, and an early foray into the sonorities of women’s voices — the piece is written for women’s chorus and orchestra — that the composer was to pursue in his great opera “The Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which is largely set in a convent and cast almost entirely with women playing nuns. These “Litanies” have the same light, graceful directness of the later opera, opening with a gentle haze of instruments that parts on unaccompanied women’s voices, adding layers and layers of sound as they go, praying simply and intensely for mercy and prayer.

“Carmina Burana,” for its part, is both sacred and profane, in that it sets a bawdy collection of medieval poems written largely by men of the cloth. A celebration of earthly delights — wine, women and song, more or less — it has become a hallmark of large choruses and orchestras, a world-famous work by an otherwise neglected composer. It’s a large and sprawling piece, and Noseda and the orchestra were well-partnered by the Choral Arts Society, sounding as lithe and precise here as its female members had sounded in the Poulenc, diction clear in the Latin, Middle High German and other archaic languages of the texts.

The Children’s Chorus of Washington offered reedy innocence juxtaposed with the worldlier sound of soprano soloist Amy Owens. Elliot Madore, the baritone soloist, was strikingly warm and sonorous at times, a little forced at others, and impressive in his ability to work falsetto and chest voice, the high and low extremes of his voice, into a single convincing line. And Santiago Ballerini gave a well-nigh heroic delivery to the character-tenor role of the roasting swan, preparing to be eaten. (It was a medieval delicacy.)

All of this was engaging without being campy — in a word, fun. It’s a quality that makes concerts that look only moderately appealing on paper come to life, and one hopes that the NSO will continue to have more of it.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday evening.