The National Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Gianandrea Noseda rolled out a program of music from Vienna on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, one set long in advance of this performance. But in a week that saw Notre Dame in Paris gutted by fire and the drop of the long-awaited Mueller report, it couldn’t have been more timely or appropriate.
The music spiraled backward in time, beginning with Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony, which he began in 1906 but didn’t complete until 1939, after fleeing Nazi Austria for the United States. Schoenberg’s sumptuous textures elicited beautiful sounds from the players in a performance that, despite its sensuality, moved inexorably toward a finale of ominous ambiguity.
From there it seemed only a short step to 1873 and one of Brahms’s happiest creations, “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” Noseda’s interpretation emphasized shape, contour and a wealth of delicate detail, while clarifying the work’s denser textures. The wind band, which is entrusted with the “Saint Anthony Chorale” on which the work is based, played with an irresistible sweetness.
After intermission came the main event — Beethoven’s Fifth. The piece, first heard in 1808, was so embedded in common consciousness that, by World War II, its opening rhythmic gesture, corresponding to the Morse code for victory — dot dot dot dash — became the anthem of the forces allied against fascism.
Without waiting for the applause to stop, Noseda grasped the baton and plunged into the first movement, so fleet and intense that its fury left the room breathless. Noseda’s musicians were with him every step of the way throughout this no-holds-barred music-making, maintaining poise, precision and refinement. Beethoven spoke urgently of ideals toward which humanity must continue to aspire, and to Thursday’s politically weary audience, this performance was a reminder why this is one of the most enduring pieces ever written.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.