New music director Gianandrea Noseda is continuing what amounts to his real inauguration with the National Symphony Orchestra. His program this week was supposed to represent a trip around Europe; but in fact, he led the orchestra around Washington. On Thursday, he played at the Kennedy Center; on Wednesday, he and the orchestra appeared at the Anthem, the gorgeous new club on the waterfront in Southwest Washington where Bob Dylan had played the night before.
For a concert in a huge space, the Anthem appearance turned out to feel like rather an intimate affair — not because it wasn't well attended (there were around 3,000 people there) but because it was so straightforward. As opposed to the orchestra's last club concert, at the Echo Stage in 2015, which featured club-style arrangements and dramatic lighting (and which I also enjoyed), this performance had the orchestra, in street clothes, simply playing the music it does well, including large chunks of this week's subscription program. Rather than chasing the audience, it introduced itself as it is and let the audience come to it.
The result was a kind of appealing vulnerability. Surprisingly, it was James Nickel, a French horn player with the orchestra, rather than Noseda who gave the first spoken introduction of the evening, emphasizing the "just folks" message that Noseda has been at pains to give out for the past few weeks. Noseda then took over emcee duties. (In fact, in this kind of venue, the orchestra could have used a little more talking and explanation.)
As for the music, it opened with what seems to have become the default piece orchestras use when they want to win over new audiences: the overture to Bernstein's "Candide." However, Respighi's "Fountains of Rome," cinematic though it may be in its depiction of Rome's fountains, was a long and languid offering for a club audience, particularly since the quiet opening and the crashing fortes of the second movement, Bernini's Triton Fountain, were to some degree swallowed up in the huge hall. Nurit Bar-Josef, the orchestra's concertmaster, came out in appropriate club attire — black leggings and a sequined tunic — to play the Meditation from "Thais." Then came the second suite from Falla's ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat," the finale from Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, which the orchestra played last week, and Gershwin's "An American in Paris," with Bernstein's "Mambo" as a rousing and predictable encore.
It was, in short, a lot of music, and it didn't always quite come across in the huge space. But the audience, though sometimes muted as well, was also attentive, stayed put, and rose at the end for happy ovations. Having long been critical of orchestras' attempts to pander to a younger audience by giving it what they think it wants to hear, I can only approve of offering sincerity. Was the result enough to get people into the concert hall? That isn't necessarily the point of the exercise — I believe it's simply about getting the ensemble onto the community's radar — but the NSO certainly wouldn't mind if it did.
And anyone who did follow the orchestra from the Anthem to the concert hall was rewarded; Thursday's performance seemed far more vivid. The concert hall is much maligned for its poor acoustics, but after the Anthem it seemed downright cozy, and the crash and spray of the Triton fountain in the Respighi, the rollicking of the Falla, and the scurrying and blatting horns of "An American in Paris" all emerged with new crispness, as if drawn out from under a protective cover. The one new piece on the program was Chausson's "Poeme," in lieu of the Massenet the night before: Bar-Josef looked like a Greek goddess and opened the solo line with throaty richness, but grew strident in the double-stopped passages and faded away a little by the end.
Thursday's wasn't a heavy program; in fact, the audience at the Anthem got more music. "It is a sort of program tonight like finger food," Noseda said to the audience. "You may not find a main course, but some nights you go to happy hour with a glass of wine, and finger food is enough." It was a nice reminder of the pleasures of variety. As for the Anthem, it would be wonderful if this were the first of a regular, perhaps annual, series of concerts.
The program repeats Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.