The program was French; the accent was Italian. Gianandrea Noseda is continuing to show Washington, and the National Symphony Orchestra, what he and they can do together. Thursday night — two days after the orchestra surprised him with a serenade for his 55th birthday — saw Noseda in avuncular mode, offering a chatty introduction to a program of three pieces that showed a narrow slice of French chronology and a broad spectrum of orchestral color. Then he turned around and let loose at and with the orchestra.
The curiosity on the program was Franck’s “Le Chasseur maudit,” a high-Gothic piece of rollicking drama with strong German overtones, not only in the layered group of horns that opened the piece but in the wind melodies and agitated string figures that evoked clear memories of Richard Wagner. Its clear drama and big scale — despite its relative shortness (15 minutes) made it a good fit for Noseda’s generous driving gestures, and the NSO horns sounded great.
Ravel’s G major piano concerto is too well-known to be really curious, but the performance was unusual nonetheless: unusual, at least, in that the orchestra sounded a little wild and unfamiliar, even as it sinuously curved around the piece’s jazzy inflections. The main focus here, though, was on the pianist Seong-Jin Cho. The winner of the Chopin Competition in 2015 and a third-place finisher in the Tchaikovsky Competition before that (when he was only 17), Cho, still in his mid-20s, plays not only with panache but with depth and sensitivity. Many young competition phenoms excel at the whiz-bang parts; Cho shone in the dreamy second movement, spinning it out into a long building fantasy that one didn’t want to end. Noseda conducted the young artist’s debut on Deutsche Grammophon in 2016, and picked him to appear with him at Wolf Trap in one of the first concerts of his tenure in Washington in 2017 — a concert Noseda was subsequently forced to cancel due to back surgery, though Cho played without him. It was worth the wait to hear them together.
The final piece on the program bookended the Franck. Saint-Saëns’s organ symphony, an even larger-scale, two-movement work with the Kennedy Center’s organ now gently supporting delicate strings, like a quiet ocean on a still day, and now breaking open the ensemble with a rich blare that left the orchestra figuratively breathless. The optics, and acoustics, conspired to rein the instrument in, the ceiling acoustic panels in their usual lowered position half covering the tallest pipes at the back of the stage, while William Neil, the NSO’s organist, maintained an appearance of perfect restraint even as his gentle fingers and feet were letting all hell break loose around the stage.
Noseda is the soul of urbanity, and yet there was a rawness to his approach. This program was French, but it was never refined or precious or merely sweet according to the tendencies of French musical stereotype. The Saint-Saëns was colored by the rough punch of cymbals, the cry of trombones, the jabbing of violin bows as the instruments seemed to pant together for breath. He was waking up the music, and the audience, who responded with enthusiastic applause.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday evenings.