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Noseda and the NSO strike the perfect balance with Beethoven and Still

The orchestra’s ‘Beethoven & American Masters’ series continued with inspired accounts of Still’s second symphony and Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of “Beethoven & American Masters.” (Scott Suchman)
6 min

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra continued its “Beethoven & American Masters” series with a beautiful balancing act.

Many installments of the series so far have paired a chunky Beethoven symphony with a smaller companion “Sinfonia” by George Walker and filled in the remainder of the program with a precisely portioned Beethoven gap-filler. On Saturday, Beethoven’s substantial Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” was counterbalanced by a modern marvel by another American master, Symphony No. 2 in G minor, “Song of a New Race,” by William Grant Still.

Still’s second symphonic swing, one of five from the “dean of African American composers,” remains a relative rarity on programs. Premiered in 1937 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the composer’s early supporter Leopold Stokowski, Still’s symphony represents a technical and narrative step forward from his first symphony, 1930’s “Afro-American Symphony.”

That first symphony sprang from a particularly fertile period in Still’s career. He was turning away from the modernist influence of Edgard Varèse (with whom he studied in the mid-’20s), embracing Black folk traditions as well as exploring “the Africa of my imagination.”

“An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore and influenced by his contact with American civilization,” he wrote in a letter to conductor Georges Barrère, who would lead a 1930 performance of his symphonic poem “Africa.” “He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.”

This radiant ideal illuminates “Song of a New Race,” in which Still seems to combine all of his multitudes and contain them in what could be mistaken for a traditional symphony. “The form is the same, the language is new,” advised maestro Gianandrea Noseda at the program’s outset.

Still endeavored with this work to paint a portrait of “the American colored man of today” as “a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods” — a transposition of his family’s own mix of African American, Native American, Scotch, Irish and Spanish heritage.

On paper in 2023, this well-meaning melting-pot vision might strike contemporary audiences as cancel fodder: naive at best or [hits italic button] cultural erasure at worst.

But, in practice, Still’s second symphony sounds like anything but a capitulation. Symphonic form is merely the vessel for his sui generis, proto-postmodernist style — a blend shaped by modernism, shaded by neoclassicism, but grown in the sunlight of spirituals, jazz, blues and Black folk traditions.

A pulse of vibraphone and a wash of light, silky strings opened the first movement, which found lively dialogues breaking out between violins and cellos. Clarinets and flutes climbed like vines up rungs of strummed harp. Noseda brought fabulous dimension to the strings, which heaved like gusts of wind over a passage of staccato flutes. A darting piccolo fluttered over quizzical oboes and clarinets. A theme rising in the brass brought the whole orchestra to a bracing climax.

In this and every movement thereafter, Still’s vibe swings freely between elegant cosmopolitanism and intimate colloquialism. From the wryly wonky horns, lilting flutes and rag-adjacent flashes of splash cymbal in the third movement, to the heartbreaker horns and luminescent strings of the finale, Still’s second is a stunningly beautiful work — a symphony that, in a better world, we’d be sick of hearing by now.

Such is the risk for that most well-pastured of warhorses, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, or the “Pastoral.”

Seldom do we find Beethoven so explicitly getting with a given program as we do in No. 6: The “Pastoral” is a landscape, a nature walk, a sweet and extended memory of the countryside of his boyhood. Little is left to your imagination; everything is left to his.

Another curveball of the “Pastoral” is its five movements, the last three of which — depicting a country dance, a storm and a post-storm celebration — are essentially smooshed into one rousing come-around. (A move he pulls in the concurrently composed fifth.)

I would love to tell you all about the first movement — “Awakening of happy feelings upon arriving in the country” — with its delicate theme carried like a dandelion seed atop the strings, the oboes, the flutes and bassoons. Alas, a pair of rude chuckleheads directly behind me spent most of the movement whispering to each other and giggling. That is, until I turned around very slowly (ever see “The Exorcist”?) and dealt them a death stare that said: “I’m ready to go viral. Are you?” That did the trick.

Perhaps it was this intrusion of human nature that made the retreat to the brook’s edge in the second movement (“Scene by the brook: Andante molto mosso”) so comparably serene. There were times during this performance, such as the first third of this movement, that Noseda’s tendency toward softness flew precariously low, its delicacy too firmly enforced.

But just as easily, he’d allow fresh momentum to grow from little wellsprings of strings or outbursts of woodwinds. I talk often about the alluring naturalism of Noseda’s conducting — and on Saturday, it was in full bloom.

My tormentors would have been welcome to giggle through the third movement — a “merry assembly of country folk” that Noseda stoked with a tempo that felt a touch more allegro that usual. Sprightly strings and cool flutes traced the theme with ease and élan until the storm of the fourth movement insinuated itself and burst open with a blast. Even if my shoes weren’t wet from the rainy walk over, I’d have felt sufficiently windblown by Noseda’s conjuring of this tumultuous penultimate movement. Big props go to the brass and percussion, whose fortes found their way into my rib cage.

The storm was beautifully winnowed by flutes and clarinets into the “Shepherd’s Song” of the final movement, the all-clear warmly signaled by English horn, the clouds parted by the cellos, and concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef (phenomenally expressive the entire evening) slicing through like a sunbeam.

If there’s a trick to making this well-trodden symphony sound fresh, I suspect it’s at the heart of Noseda’s approach: Keep it simple, let it do its thing, tend its garden. Like a new day, it only requires we awaken to it.