After the weekend's season-opening gala, the National Symphony Orchestra got its regular season underway Thursday night with an all-American program that represented some continuity, and a break. The continuity lay in the selection of pieces, which continued the Bernstein theme of this season: works by Leonard Bernstein, his friend and mentor Aaron Copland, and one of his successors, John Adams. Adams's "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" is a great, upbeat way to start your subscription season; indeed, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played it as the first piece on its regular season just two weeks ago.
The break lay in the fact that, after the big buildup to the arrival of the new music director, Gianandrea Noseda, he's gone for several weeks. This is all according to plan: Even when he was announced as music director a year and a half ago, Noseda's schedule was already full enough that he could commit to only eight weeks with the NSO this season. He will be returning in November. But it does make for a bit of anticlimax for subscription audiences, entering the hall past posters of Noseda, to hear Cristian Macelaru, who led Thursday's program, instead.
Not that Macelaru is a slouch, as the NSO, and its audiences, have had several chances to determine. His approach to "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" was firm and robust, with an emphasis on the underlying pulse supporting a score that burst at the seams with color, flying by in a flash.
The evening's main focus was on Copland, starting with his first major work: the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra he wrote at the instigation of his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, when he was in his 20s. It is characterized by a questing angularity (the composer himself later thought the work was "too European"). Angular, too, was the performance of the soloist, Cameron Carpenter, the enfant terrible of the organ, who played the solo line of this not-quite concerto with abandon and his signature unusual registrations, as if setting out to make the piece sound as unlike the stereotype of organ sound as possible. The rocketing scherzo with its syncopations sounded like a natural fit for Carpenter's aggressive virtuosity, but the finale splintered inconclusively, with soloist and orchestra failing to unite in a common point.
The fault is partly Macelaru's; he is fond of exaggerated contrasts, from slowed-down quiet sections to explosive outbursts of fortissimo. Contrasting with the organ symphony, after intermission, was the quintessentially American "Appalachian Spring," which epitomizes the idea of straightforwardness. In this reading, though, it sometimes threatened to founder on the exaggerated, slowed-down drama of its quiet passages, before whiplashing abruptly into what sounded like a hoedown projected in a funhouse mirror.
Little-known late Bernstein concluded the evening. His "Divertimento" was written in 1980, a balance between an amusing encore-style piece and the panstylistic display of a musical polymath. This short, eight-movement work flaunts an array of classical set pieces, from an opening fanfare through a waltz and mazurka to a Coplandesque "Turkey Trot," a 12-tone section called "Sphinxes," a flirtation with the "Blues," and a dancing march. The mercurial and brilliant music was a nice showcase for a conductor fond of contrasts and an orchestra that has started the season sounding energetic.
It was an especially good night to be a trumpeter or trombonist, from the finish of the Bernstein to a brass-heavy arrangement of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the start. When the national anthem ended, one audience member bawled out, raucously, "God save President Trump!," eliciting from the public a frisson of protest, or of simple perplexity.
National Symphony Orchestra The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.