As the National Symphony Orchestra continues its search for a new music director in a crowded and competitive market, it appears that Washington audiences may be in for a series of particularly compelling concerts by guest conductors throughout this season. That, at least, was an idea that came to mind partway through the performance by Gianandrea Noseda and the NSO on Thursday night.
Noseda, a 51-year-old Italian who regularly conducts the top echelons of the international circuit and evokes a rare kind of bird on the podium with his long, embracing arms, is an attractive candidate for any ensemble, and might come as much in question for the New York Philharmonic as the National Symphony Orchestra, which he first conducted in 2011. And for all I know, he might not be in the running for either. But I am certain that he led a very satisfying rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, in all its sprawling, sugary, muscular glory, and that he got the orchestra to sound pretty darn good.
It took me a little while to form that impression, because Noseda is a creature of some restraint: He’s not flashy and he’s not obvious, and sometimes he seems to have to work a little harder than he needs to in order to get results. I haven’t found him generally to be a conductor who tugs at the heartstrings.
He did start the concert with one of the tried-and-true techniques of the experienced guest conductor: leading the orchestra in a piece it had never played before. This opening gambit is often taken as a chance for a conductor to show off a work by a less-known compatriot, and that was certainly true here. The work was “Elegia Eroica” by Alfredo Casella, an Italian composer of the early 20th century and one of several late-romantics to have found contemporary champions. This elegy is a dark, brooding piece that sounds very much of its time (it was written in 1916), with overtones of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in its colors and textures if not in its rather straightforward rhythms, and a sprawling orchestra that Noseda often reined in to move with a catlike tread, in between more focused outbursts. It was well worth hearing at least once.
The main event, the concerto, was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, in which the Canadian soloist James Ehnes made his NSO debut. Ehnes is a much-recorded and extremely capable violinist with a pleasant tone. He executed the solo part effectively without actually being spectacular in it, with a few moments when, despite Noseda’s notable restraint, he was actually hard to hear. The overall result was a reading that felt slightly distant; the third movement, from both soloist and orchestra, lacked the sense of vitality and bite that characterizes so much of Prokofiev in his up-tempo mode.
Rachmaninoff, however, drew the gloves off Noseda. This music often hovers somewhere between the profound and the overripe, and Noseda dropped restraint to lead the orchestra to full, sweet, pliable effusions that never crossed into exaggeration. He rearranged the orchestra for this program by putting the first and second violins together and the violas on the outside, bookending the cellos — another way of putting his stamp on an ensemble that seemed, for the most part, happy to be shaped.
The program repeats Friday at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m.