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Secrecy supercharges the NSO and Noseda’s ‘Symphonic Surprise’

A program kept under wraps until showtime packs a punch, with unlikely selections from Smetana, Dvorak, Reger and Rachmaninoff

The National Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, during its “Symphonic Surprise” concert Thursday. (Photos by Scott Suchman)
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On Thursday, the National Symphony Orchestra presented another installment of what has become a tradition under maestro Gianandrea Noseda: the “Symphonic Surprise.” For this program, audiences go in with no indication of what music lies in store and only their intuition to connect the notes.

Why keep the contents of a program under wraps? Well, for one, it makes for a fun guessing game. Noseda’s impromptu quizmaster routine at the conclusion of each piece allows for a casual back and forth between the orchestra and audience members, who typically rely on music and applause to communicate.

For another? To be frank, there just might have been a little less excitement in the air (and fewer cheeks in the seats) had the NSO come clean and billed the program “An Evening of Unpopular Tone Poems.”

Luckily, this subterfuge worked in everyone’s favor. In fact, the true surprise of the “Symphonic Surprise” wasn’t so much learning the identity of the pieces and their composers. It was the lingering feeling long afterward that we should probably be making this secret program more routine.

Conventional knowledge tells us that audiences have no appetite for unfamiliar repertoire. But it turns out that if you just keep them completely in the dark, the alienating suddenly becomes tantalizing. Want folks to spend their evening snacking on tone poems about 10th-century Norwegian rulers and daughter-snatching water goblins? Simply decline to mention the menu.

On Thursday — and at repeat performances on Friday and Saturday (which is why we pumped the brakes on this “surprise” review) — the orchestra offered a four-course serving of symphonic poems: Bedrich Smetana’s 1861 “Haakon Jarl”; Antonin Dvorak’s 1896 “Vodník” (or “The Water Goblin”); Max Reger’s 1913 “Der geigende Eremit” (one of a set of four tone poems based on the paintings of Arnold Böcklin); and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Caprice bohémien” (which Noseda prefaced as “not a tone poem, but close enough”).

The tone poem is one of those forms that can be fudged and smudged a bit. Lots of them sprang up right before the turn of the 20th century, when all sorts of formal, harmonic and aesthetic bolts were beginning to loosen across the arts. It’s a form well-suited to wild bursts of late-Romantic passion and sudden flashes of futurist inspiration — more of a sketchbook than a canvas. In the big city of a symphony, the streets and avenues of keys and tempos can help you find your bearings. A tone poem is more like a path into the woods.

Noseda has a knack for storytelling — and not just when he remembers he has a microphone up there, but also in his interpretation of music. He knows how to pool and release energy, how to play with pace and force. He has the conductor’s equivalent of comic timing. You can’t really touch these pieces without this kind of sensibility. (To get an idea of what I mean, ask Siri to read you a bedtime story.)

This skill was on full display in the Smetana. “Haakon Jarl” charts the rocky reign of the titular ruler who favored the Norse gods and fought the advance of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II as well as further attempts to Christianize Norway. Fun stuff, I know. But the orchestra’s telling made the tale gripping, even if you dissociate from the details.

Deep, rich, unison strings opened the story like a strong wind across a fjord. The body of the music swelled with gusty surges and rose into bristling climaxes. Adriana Horne offered glistening harp interludes before a lovely passage of woodwinds cut through by Peter Cain’s lowing bass clarinet. The piece tightened and quickened into the hover of a hornet before resolving into a farewell of strings so heroic you half-expected credits to roll. (Props to Jauvon Gilliam for that titanic tympanic finish.)

Dvorak’s “Water Goblin,” adapted from the poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, was also expertly told — the icy, limpid surface etched by the strings barely concealed a lurking menace below. Violas slinked atop pizzicato bass punctuation as Noseda whipped up a whirlwind of violins. A rhythmic motif tapped out throughout felt like a tether tied to the shore — a strand of hope. Noseda declined to tell us the entire story of what happens to the daughter abducted into the lake by the goblin. (Unlike this performance, it ain’t pretty.)

The Reger was a marvelous example of musical ekphrasis — i.e., poetry about art. “Der geigende Eremit” takes Böcklin’s depiction of a fiddling hermit as its inspiration, and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef delivered an achingly beautiful reading that felt more like a portrayal. Noseda later described the piece’s “long state of ecstatic beauty,” and in its glowing, sustained textures, you can detect Reger’s life as an organist. Apart from the surprise marimba solo contributed by someone’s phone, it was a pristine performance.

Rachmaninoff’s “Caprice bohémien” — which follows in the footsteps of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capricho español” and Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” — provided a rousing finish, with shimmering strings and gorgeous contributions from flutist Aaron Goldman, clarinetist Lin Ma and cellist David Hardy. The entire percussion section was on top of this propulsive piece’s many tambourines, rattles and gongs, which culminate into an explosive finish.

A “Symphonic Surprise” may have been a little late for Halloween, but its signature trick turned out to be a real treat. Grab bags of largely discarded deep cuts, forgotten tone poems and canonical duds are a great way to smuggle new repertoire into the room.

But can adventurous programs such as this one be met with such a warm reception without the shroud of secrecy? Orchestras in general should push these buttons and their audiences more often. They might be surprised.