The National Symphony Orchestra opened its 92nd season on Saturday night with a gala celebration that felt a little like a performance review (the other kind).
And rightly so. I really do think Noseda has been a great fortune for this orchestra: The musicians like him. Audiences like him. Sometimes it feels as though the music itself likes him.
If I went into Saturday night’s gala program with a slight critic’s crinkle in my nose at the relative safety of the repertoire, the evening was a firm reminder that a large part of Noseda’s appeal is his natural ability to reveal things about the music that it simply won’t confide in anyone else.
Now about that program. It went how these galae typically go: We all perched on a proverbial hillside to take in a dazzling landscape — the winding riparian treat of Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” (or “The Moldau”). We settled in and got comfortable (whilst ticking a contemporary box) with a cinematic piece by Kennedy Center composer in residence Carlos Simon. Remarks, applause; remarks, applause; and then, the fireworks: Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (thrillingly played by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov), and Richard Strauss’s bombastic orchestral suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.”
The opening trickle of flutes in “Vltava” (a symphonically poetic homage to the river that ran through Smetana’s native Bohemia) led to a wash of deja vu — it was only last month that the summertime incarnation of the NSO floated down the Moldau under Russian American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya at Wolf Trap.
Normally I’d tsk the ever-living heck out of an orchestra for repeating themselves and foregoing an opportunity to try something new, but this “Vltava” was kilometers away from the flattened surface of the Wolf Trap performance. Call it the Noseda effect.
Part of the difference is Noseda’s attentiveness to dynamic nuance, which now and then borders on a kind of musical photorealism: In some of the piece’s more lucid stretches, he peeled apart the parallel surfaces of the strings and woodwinds, allowing them to shimmer and play off of each other. The river felt alive.
But the bigger part has to do with Noseda’s awareness of a piece’s potential energy — a storyteller’s knack for finding the internal narrative and changing our experience of its flow without changing the direction of its course.
This is evident even in works we haven’t heard before, like “This Land” by Carlos Simon. The composer’s tenure in residence at the Kennedy Center has been a string of highlights — if there’s a predictable aspect to Simon’s music, it’s that it will reliably strive to surprise.
Simon, too, renders a landscape in “This Land,” albeit a wider-screen capture.
That titular truncation of Woody Guthrie’s iconic anthem signals one of Simon’s compositional strategies. “This Land” is threaded with trimmed bits of anthems from around the world, their assembly constituting an altogether new texture. (For a visual analogue, I found myself thinking of Mark Bradford’s monumental collage — or collagist monument — “Pickett’s Charge” on view at the Hirshhorn.)
Given that the music takes inspiration from Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The New Colossus” (made famous by its invitation to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that lives on as an inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty), the metaphor of America in all of her e pluribus unum glory might have landed heavier than 31 tons of copper.
But because of Simon’s understanding of balance (i.e. each entrance of light is shaped by a shadow, every sigh is answered by a breath of hope) and because of Noseda’s understanding of Simon, “This Land” achieved that unlikeliest of musical combos: Proudly American and effortlessly chic.
The two works composing the concert’s second act — one, an old favorite based on an older favorite; the other a time-tested (and arguably Trojan) warhorse — might have at first glance seemed like a platter of crowd-pleasing hors d’oeuvres for a tux-and-gown crowd primed on preconcert flutes of sparkling rose and promised a prompt dinner after the show.
But the choices were charged by a subtle polarity.
In Rachmaninoff’s 1934 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” we hear a composer turning to the past (in this case, the most beloved of Paganini’s Caprices, No. 24) as a means to parse the present. And in Richard Strauss’s 1910 orchestral suite from “Der Rosenkavalier,” we hear a composer known for his monumental modernism take a U-turn into nostalgia.
Neither is quite the case, and Noseda played these tensions like an instrument, first working in tandem with a hunched-over Daniil Trifonov at the piano to deliver a “Rhapsody” brimming with color, complexity and, as befits its two-dozen variations on Paganini’s theme, multiple personalities.
It was a pleasure to see and hear Trifonov is his element. I last heard him was here in the Concert Hall, but under the vastly different circumstances of May 2021.
Like many things about those first months of emergence from the pandemic’s swamp of sadness, my memories of the performance are strained. I do, however, recall a conflicted feeling: One on hand, the scant 236 socially distanced bodies in the audience that day meant the details of Trifonov’s performance were acoustically devoured by the empty room.
On the other hand, I was so happy to hear music — full stop — that Trifonov could have played the Shostakovich concerto on a rubber chicken and I’d probably have penned a letter home.
On Saturday, order (and a proper audience) was restored. The hall offered no such impediments to registering Trifonov’s astonishingly high resolution. He’s that rare virtuoso whose skills seem to swirl around a sound sense of humor — drifting through its dizzying cadenzas with the ease of a daydream, banging out its “Dies Irae” intrusions with the corrective bark of a headmaster.
Trifonov and the orchestra were also keenly locked, navigating stormy syncopation, militaristic buildups and outbursts of heated dialogue with grace and ferocity.
To the extent that the Strausses ever get jumbled in listener’s mind, the orchestral suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” is usually the culprit, so Johannes-esque are its many waltzes.
And though Richard often sounds in this effervescently ADHD suite as if he’s lost and frantically flipping through maps of memory lane, his assemblage of mini-movements snatched from the 1910 comic opera can make narrative sense in the right hands. Noseda was fully invested in Strauss’s intricacies, idiosyncrasies and (most crucially) ironies; and the audience responded now and then with audible giggles when the maestro’s multitasking got physical.
Five years into the Noseda era, the NSO sounds stronger than ever. But for a couple of forgivably rusty notes in the low brass toward the end of the evening, this orchestra is a finely tuned machine experiencing a surge of post-pandemic momentum (this event alone raised $1.3 million).
The question for the next five years is what to do with this newfound power. Is the Noseda effect limited to individual pieces of music? Or can his presence over the longer term also help to bring out the essence and articulate the identity of the NSO? He’s got the job. So let’s get to work.