A lively ONS gala celebrates the extension of the Noseda era


The National Symphony Orchestra opened its 92nd season on Saturday night with a gala celebration that felt a bit like a performance review (the other kind).

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda’s contract extension with the ONS through the 2026-27 season was revived by a trio of speakers during a break in the program – Kennedy Center President David Rubenstein, President of the ONS Ronald D. Abramson and outgoing ONS Executive Director Gary Ginstling, who leaves this year to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – and celebrated with long applause.

And rightly so. I really think that Noseda has been a great fortune for this orchestra: the musicians like him. People like him. Sometimes it feels like the music itself loves it.

If I walked into Saturday night’s gala program with a slight wrinkle of criticism in my nose about the relative safety of the repertoire, the evening was a firm reminder that much of Noseda’s appeal is his natural ability to reveal things about the music that he won’t confide in anyone else.

Now let’s talk about this program. It happened as these galae usually go: we all perched on a proverbial hill to admire a dazzling landscape – the meandering riverside treatment of Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” (or “The Moldau”). We settled in and got comfortable (while checking a contemporary box) with a cinematic piece by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon. Remarks, applause; remarks, applause; then, the fireworks: Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” (enthusiastically performed by Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov) and Richard Strauss’ explosive orchestral suite from “Der Rosenkavalier”.

The first flute trickle of ‘Vltava’ (a symphonic and poetic homage to the river that ran through Smetana’s native Bohemia) led to a wave of deja vu – it was only last month that the summer incarnation of the NSO floated on the Moldau under Russian orders. American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya in Wolf Trap.

Gil Shaham, the NSO and Mother Nature take Wolf Trap by storm

Normally I would tsk the ever-living devil of an orchestra to repeat itself and give up an opportunity to try something new, but this “Vltava” was miles from the flattened surface of Wolf Trap performance. Call it the Noseda effect.

Part of the difference is Noseda’s attention to dynamic nuances, which sometimes borders on a kind of musical photorealism: in some of the piece’s clearer passages, he has peeled away the parallel surfaces of strings and woodwinds, their allowing them to sparkle and play off each other. The river felt alive.

But much of it has to do with Noseda’s awareness of a room’s potential energy – a storyteller’s talent for finding the inner narrative and changing our experience of its flow without changing the direction of its course.

This is evident even in works we’ve never heard before, like Carlos Simon’s ‘This Land’. The composer-in-residence tenure at the Kennedy Center has been a series of highlights – if there’s one predictable aspect to Simon’s music, it’s that it will reliably strive to surprise.

Simon, too, renders a landscape in “This Land”, although it’s a wider screenshot.

This titular truncation of Woody Guthrie’s iconic anthem signals one of Simon’s compositional strategies. “This Land” is strung with cropped pieces of anthems from around the world, putting them together for a whole new texture. (For a visual analogue, I found myself thinking of Mark Bradford’s monumental collage – or collage monument – “Pickett’s Charge” on display at the Hirshhorn.)

Since the music is inspired by Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem “The New Colossus” (made famous by its invitation to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe freely” which lives on as an inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty ), the metaphor of America in all its e pluribus unum glory could have landed heavier than 31 tons of copper.

But due to Simon’s understanding of balance (i.e. each entry of light is shaped by a shadow, each sigh is answered by a breath of hope) and due to Simon’s understanding by Noseda, “This Land” pulled off the most unlikely of musical combos: Proudly American and effortlessly chic.

The two works making up the second act of the concert – one, an old favorite based on an old favourite; the other a tried and tested warhorse (and arguably a Trojan horse) – might at first glance look like a crowd-pleasing platter of hors d’oeuvres for a tuxedo-and-robe-primed crowd on flutes sparkling rose pre-concert and promised a quick dinner after the show.

But the choices were charged with a subtle polarity.

In Rachmaninoff’s 1934 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” we hear a composer turn to the past (in this case, the most beloved of Paganini’s Caprices, No. 24) as a means of analyzing the present. And in Richard Strauss’ 1910 orchestral suite from “Der Rosenkavalier,” we hear a composer known for his monumental modernism turn around in nostalgia.

That’s not quite the case, and Noseda played these tensions like an instrument, working first in tandem with a piano-leaning Daniil Trifonov to deliver a ‘Rhapsody’ brimming with color, complexity and, as he suits its two dozen variations on Theme of Paganini, multiple personalities.

It was a pleasure to see and hear that Trifonov is his element. I last heard he was here in the concert hall, but under the very different circumstances of May 2021.

Like so much about those early months of emerging from the pandemic swamp of sadness, my memories of the performance are strained. I remember a conflicted feeling, though: on the one hand, the few socially distant bodies in the audience that day meant that the details of Trifonov’s performance were acoustically devoured by the empty hall.

On the other hand, I was so happy to hear music—period—that Trifonov could have played Shostakovich’s concerto on a rubber chicken and I probably would have written a letter home.

Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra return with full hearts – and rows of empty seats

On Saturday, order (and a good audience) was restored. The room offered no such obstacles to recording Trifonov’s surprisingly high resolution. He’s that rare virtuoso whose skills seem to swirl around a solid sense of humor – drifting through his dizzying cadences with the ease of a daydream, lashing out his “Dies Irae” intrusions with the corrective bark of a director.

Trifonov and the orchestra were also intertwined, navigating stormy syncopation, militaristic buildups and outbursts of impassioned dialogue with grace and ferocity.

To the extent that the Strausses merge in the listener’s mind, the orchestral suite of “Der Rosenkavalier” is usually the culprit, so Johannes-esque are its many waltzes.

And though Richard often sounds in this effervescent ADHD sequel like he’s lost and frantically flipping through memory cards, his assemblage of mini-moves from the 1910 comic opera can make narrative sense in the right hands. Noseda was fully invested in the complexities, idiosyncrasies and (especially) ironies of Strauss; and the audience occasionally responded with audible laughter as the maestro’s multitasking got physical.

Five years into the Noseda era, the NSO sounds louder than ever. But for a few forgivable rusty notes in the low horns towards the end of the evening, this orchestra is a finely tuned machine experiencing a post-pandemic surge of momentum (this event alone raised $1.3 million ).

The question for the next five years is what to do with this new power. Is the Noseda effect limited to individual pieces of music? Or can its longer-term presence also help bring out the essence and articulate the identity of the NSO? He has the job. So let’s get to work.

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