Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 is conducted by Gianandrea Noseda at the Kennedy Center in February 2011 in Washington. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

Months before it was expected, the National Symphony Orchestra has named Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, 51, as its seventh music director, taking over at the start of the 2017-2018 season. He will succeed Christoph Eschenbach, whose contract expires in 2017.

It’s a coup for the NSO. Noseda is a star at the world’s leading orchestra and opera houses, including the Mariinsky Theatre, where he became the company’s first foreign-born principal guest conductor at the start of his career; the Israel Philharmonic, where he is principal guest conductor; and the Metropolitan Opera, where he opened the new production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” on New Year’s Eve to considerable acclaim. Musical America named him its 2015 Conductor of the Year.

Even better for the orchestra, he — unlike some of the NSO’s previous music directors — combines international prestige with solid conducting technique. In his previous two music directorships — the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England, and the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, a post he still holds — he has patiently brought mid-level ensembles to new heights of artistry and recognition. Teatro Regio made its first North American tour in 2014; critics in New York and Chicago counted its performances of Rossini’s “William Tell” as a highlight of the year.

He has worked well with the NSO, an orchestra he first conducted in 2011, and to which he returned in November.

“I found a fantastic attitude. . . . I felt very naturally committed with them, in a normal sort of way,” Noseda said Saturday in a hotel lobby in New York. “What really impressed me is the development we got together, from the first rehearsal to the first concert, and how much the quality was increasing in the next two performances.”

He added, “You see in the eyes of the players, the wish. ‘We can do it, we have just to be asked to do it, we want to deliver.’ ”

Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president, said, “I knew he was a great musician and a really generous, warm man. I didn’t know what the chemistry would be like.” After the first rehearsals, she said, speaking by phone Sunday evening, “people were calling me saying, ‘The musicians are going crazy down here.’ We didn’t want to miss out on anything. We wanted to strike while the iron was hot.”

The swift move may be perceived as a victory for Rutter, who arrived in Washington in 2014 bearing the weight of high expectations for the music director search based on her track record of securing Riccardo Muti as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she was that orchestra’s president. Noseda doesn’t yet have Muti’s stature, but he is also an Italian conductor with a significant international career who specializes in both orchestral conducting and opera.

The search committee included NSO musicians, board members and members of the administration, and Rutter was only one voice at the table. “This has been a group process,” she said. And the committee, which began convening a few weeks after February’s announcement that Christoph Eschenbach would not extend his contract as music director beyond 2017, identified Noseda as a person of interest early on, without, participants say, more input from Rutter than anyone else.

“All along the way,” says Matthew Guilford, the NSO’s bass trombonist and the head of the five orchestra musicians on the search committee, “he was in the highest ranks of the people we were possibly considering.”

Most of the committee’s members, including Guilford, had served on previous conductor-search committees, an experience that helped facilitate this search. “We were kind of able to hit the ground running,” Guilford said. Although Noseda says he arrived in the fall without sensing that he was about to be made an offer, a few members of the committee had already met with him over the summer.

Still, everything depended on the chemistry when he actually arrived in November — which was, apparently, nearly instantaneous.

“He’s very masterful and astute in putting his hands on the things that need to be toggled with an orchestra,” Guilford says. “He does it very quickly and he’s got a lot of assuredness. He’s an extremely efficient rehearser. We were so well prepared that we felt great going into the performances, and all three this time, as well as the three back in 2011, were of a consistently high quality.”

Other orchestra members, he said, kept coming up to members of the search committee “and pinning us down and saying, ‘Get this guy.’ ”

“It was so exciting to watch how he worked and how the orchestra responded,” Rita Shapiro, the NSO’s executive director, says. “He was demanding, and yet his musicmaking is so full of imagery, it’s inspirational.” She added, “I saw musicians smiling in rehearsal . . . . And he was so respectful but insistent about important things, balance and intonation, the basics.”

“When it was so clear,” she continued, “we just said this was it. We needed to move quickly. He was very open, and also as excited and enthusiastic as our committee was.” Within four weeks of his November performances, Noseda had signed a letter of intent.

No one will comment on Noseda’s salary, but it is safe to say that it will be squarely in six-figure territory. It will not touch the extravagant heights of the $2 million that Eschenbach commanded as the nominal music director of both the Kennedy Center and the NSO, making him the highest-paid music director in the United States.

Noseda’s title will be simply music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. However, given the kinds of restructuring that Rutter is undertaking at the center, the potential for collaboration with other ensembles within the Kennedy Center is arguably stronger than ever. There are no concrete plans for Noseda to work with the Washington National Opera, but no one involved, when asked, is categorically ruling it out.

Noseda’s range is strikingly broad. His experience at the Mariinsky, in St. Petersburg, has given him a special connection to Russian composers and a number of Russian artists. These include the soprano Anna Netrebko, who recorded her recent Verdi album with Noseda and the Turin orchestra, after coaching her Italian with his wife, Lucia, a former soprano who now travels with him and whom he calls “the biggest supporter, and also the toughest critic.”

But he is also at home rooting through less-known names in the Italian canon, such as Alfredo Casella, whose “Elegia Eroica” impressed NSO listeners in November, and whose work he has recorded in his ongoing partnership with the record label Chandos. As for contemporary scores, he trained as a composer himself; he didn’t turn to conducting until the age of 27. “I like to dig inside new scores,” he said, “and there is the same story [as in works from the classical canon] — to try to find the secret behind the notes. Anyway, it’s easier, because the pieces are written much closer to us.”

To his first American music director post, Noseda brings not only musical experience but also ongoing relationships with two record labels (Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon) and fundraising expertise honed most recently when he helped raise about $1.1 million for Turin’s 2014 tour. He also brings an ambitious vision to an orchestra that is known for being well paid but chronically underachieving — a vision that’s pretty much in line with the orchestra’s fondest dreams for itself.

“There is a responsibility to be the orchestra of the capital,” he says. “First of all it has to be an incredibly highly regarded orchestra in musical terms, in terms of quality; otherwise, the rest is just accessories. But if you get to the point, you can also be a sort of ambassador, as an orchestra, of politics in the highest possible terms. So, to go into the community, to travel into America, and also to travel in Europe, to travel to Japan, to see what this country’s capable of doing, and in that way to inspire also the way to think about the building up of a better society. But you have to do it through the music, not through speeches.

“The potential is there,” he adds. “Otherwise, they would never play in two days and a half [the] Rachmaninoff Second as they played it.”

The musicians seem to feel it, too. “I actually had a musician come to me in tears,” said Shapiro, “saying this was the most extraordinary week she could remember with the orchestra.” Evidently we can all look forward to a lot more of them in the years ahead.