There's a certain flair going on at the National Symphony Orchestra, an institution that has not been known for flair for quite some time. Thursday's program began with a delightful semi-rarity, Benjamin Britten's "Matinées musicales," in which the young composer, writing in the United States in 1940, filtered late Rossini through a colorful orchestration that has the touch of a big band. Gianandrea Noseda, the orchestra's new music director, got a sense of the focus and the excitement and, yes, the debonair, that the orchestra has been missing for so long.
At the end of his first run of subscription concerts as music director, Noseda seems to have put a spring in the orchestra's step. The ensemble has had some big-name leaders, but never one quite in Noseda's position. A big name that's getting even bigger — last week, he returned triumphantly to the New York Philharmonic after an 11-year absence — he's also a little bit of an unknown quantity in that he's not yet an overestablished brand name. On Thursday, you could feel the freshness in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, as an involved audience responded to yet another week of captivating programming.
In remarks from the podium, the conductor described the program's theme as journeys; all three works on it were written by composers away from home. (Rachmaninoff was, like Britten, living in the United States when he wrote his "Symphonic Dances," and Prokofiev was in Paris when he wrote his fifth, and final, piano concerto.) But another, and perhaps stronger, link was that all three works reflected a particular time, written within a decade of each other, between 1931 (Prokofiev) and 1941 (Britten). There was a period elegance, a sense of circling cigarette smoke and marcelled hair, lurking behind Britten's orchestrations, and even the artless-yet-sophisticated lullaby for the piano in the fourth, slow movement of the Prokofiev.
The piano soloist was Yuja Wang, a brilliant artist who is fond of provoking conservative audiences with skimpy concert attire, and who on Thursday appeared to have forgotten her dress altogether and looked as if she were playing in her underwear. The bourgeoisie refused to be "épater-ed," instead rising to its feet at her masterful, fluid playing in an unusual piece (it was the NSO's first performance of it) that is itself rather exuberant and naughty.
This concerto unfolds with a stream-of-consciousness air, at the very start yo-yoing between jagged spikes of chords bristling from the keyboard like the points of a troublesome star and attempts at amelioration from the gentle strings; and both it and the soloist share a deceptive appearance of artlessness cleverly concealing the underlying hard work. It's a quick, bright piece that zeroes in to make its points, over and over, and then retreats and chuckles at itself, and the audience appreciated the fun. Wang then offered two encores that stayed true to the evening's chronological theme: Art Tatum's arrangement of "Tea for Two," draped with filigrees of notes like spun sugar, and the third movement of Prokofiev's seventh sonata, dark and driven and shot through with bolts of light.
A challenge of Noseda's brand of energy is sustaining it; toward the end of Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," you could feel the orchestra beginning to flag. Keeping up that level of alertness is not an altogether familiar experience for this group. Yet overall, the piece was vivid and rich. I used to find Noseda cool; I think a certain degree of calculation made itself audible in his music-making. Success is a great temperer of that kind of coolness, as the calculation becomes more seamlessly incorporated into the passion he wants to project. "I don't think this music was written to be danced," he said in his remarks to the audience after the interval, "but we will make our dream, our soul dance along with it." A hard invitation to resist, when the piece is played like that.
The concert repeats Friday at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday evening at 8.