It wasn’t subtle, the National Symphony’s bid to sell Gianandrea Noseda as the second coming of Mstislav Rostropovich. “Slava” was the NSO’s most celebrated music director, and his tenure, from 1977 to 1994, raised the profile of the previously provincial orchestra to global heights, touring the world and playing Red Square in 93. They’ve been trying to recapture that magic ever since. The current, outgoing music director Christoph Eschenbach was hailed as the next Slava when they brought him in: an accomplished soloist with old world sophistication, a tragic backstory (Eschenbach a German war orphan, Slava a Soviet exile), and a focus on the European Romantics. Until he announced his exit, just five years in, and suddenly they were looking for their next Slava.
Now Noseda is the guy, they tell us. This weekend, in his first visit since being named the orchestra’s director-designate, he leads the orchestra in a program that consists entirely of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the Russian composer’s four-act 1938 ballet, in concert form (no dancers, but projections tracking where we are in the story). See, Slava was buddies with Prokofiev, who also shares a birthday with Noseda, the conductor told the audience Thursday, and Romeo and Juliet takes place in Noseda’s Italy. So the circle is complete.
The NSO has always hung its elusive dreams of Big Five status on its director, and Thursday’s audience were eager to see the next savior-conductor in action. Their response was effusive, and forgiving of the orchestra’s faults. Like Eschenbach, Noseda is prone to the big sweeping gestures that announce how much he feels the music (he also favors the all-black Nehru outfits Eschy rocks), and he clearly knows the piece well. He also knows how to put on a show: crouching and jumping up at the big swells, slashing the air, dancing with an imaginary partner, and doing the robot. It was a high energy performance that was thrilling and often quite messy.
Romeo and Juliet is pretty traditionally Romantic and apolitical for a Stalin-era ballet (which the Soviet censors liked a lot more than Prokofiev’s later, “formalist” work, go figure). It requires a very full orchestra (including organ, two harps, lots of percussion) and nimble coordination across sections. The NSO didn’t always manage to hit their notes on time, such as the opening to Act II, or on key, such as the trumpets and some of the winds. The tempi veered from frenzied to plodding, the dynamics from medium-loud to blaring, and not always balanced.
On the other hand, for a piece lacking a soloist, there were some tremendous mini-solos by section principals at different points throughout the piece. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, organist Gary Davison, and cellist David Hardy especially stood out (the latter’s section’s overall quality is perhaps Slava’s most lasting legacy). Start-to-finish, the performance was electric, and the orchestra and Noseda both were visibly having fun. The audience certainly was into it, and happy to see a capable conductor in his element. But the NSO always hypes the new guy until he’s no longer new. Time will tell how long the hype lasts.
It’s hard to say how much of the technical issues were Noseda’s fault. But under Eschenbach, the NSO has focused more on “feeling the music” than technique, and I hope that under Noseda, they do some back-to-basics quality control. Noseda’s got enormous talent and experience, no doubt, but one person can only do so much.
The program continues Friday, November 4 and Saturday, November 5 at 8 p.m. At the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $89.