Indeed, Samuel Barber’s “First Essay,” which debuted in 1938, is about as European as American music gets, a stretch of serious craft laced with Romantic and verismo infections. On Thursday, some of the quick, chattering rhythms at the work’s center were still skittery, but broader sections played to Noseda’s and the orchestra’s strengths: big, generous gestures of sturdy sound.
Their accompaniment of soloist Akiko Suwanai in Tchaikovsky’s Op. 35 Violin Concerto was similarly robust. Suwanai, with full-throated flourish, took a couple of approaches to the parley. At first, she used a notably flexible sense of tempo to command the dialogue, calling extra attention to notes and phrases; in the finale, her big, focused, almost piercing tone took over, carving sonic space, a racecar driver weaving in and out of (and even cutting off) traffic. Her encore, the Andante from Bach’s BWV 1003 solo Sonata, was a limpid, somber foil.
The second half found Tchaikovsky in dialogue with Igor Stravinsky, via adaptations of the former’s ballet “Sleeping Beauty”: the “Bluebird” Pas de Deux (which Stravinsky arranged for the New York Ballet Theatre) and a pair of numbers Tchaikovsky edited out (which Stravinsky orchestrated for the Ballets Russes). The performances had a pleasantly disorienting charm, like eating candy with uncannily exact artificial flavoring. (Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef’s solo in the “Entr’acte” played like a petit four version of the concerto.)
The disorientation of Stravinsky’s 1945 “Symphony in Three Movements” was a little more profound. The piece — the first premiered by Stravinsky after becoming a U.S. citizen — is a bricolage of aggressive outbursts, almost minimalist repetition and a kind of alienated cinematic glamour. (Stravinsky recycled the slow movement from an abandoned film score to, of all things, “The Song of Bernadette.”) The performance was high-contrast and obsessive, a glitchy assembly line of piston-driven rhythms and glaring color.
Which is to say, they got it right. At a time when American classical music had coalesced around broad, optimistic rhetoric, Stravinsky captured another vision of America, equal parts synthetic fantasy, Puritan work ethic and conspiracy theory. Noseda and the orchestra honored the symphony’s crisp, cranky strangeness. The ovation was notably less fervent than that which greeted Tchaikovsky’s fireworks. Landscapes always command more value than mirrors.
Thursday’s program repeats on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org/nso.