That was fast: The National Symphony Orchestra announced Monday that it has chosen its next music director, Gianandrea Noseda, just a few months into the search for outgoing director Christoph Eschenbach’s replacement and a full year-and-a-half before the job formally begins. The early decision locks in a new leader for the orchestra but sadly deprives the rest of us of the fun of speculating which visiting conductor this season and next would be in the running (I liked Donald Runnnicles, for what it’s worth).
The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette first broke the news of Noseda’s hiring and has a good bio of Noseda. He’s a globetrotting Italian conductor with a solid CV who’s comfortable in both the orchestra and opera worlds, having led the Mariinsky Theater, the BBC Philharmonic, and Italy’s Teatro Regio, and just recently got accolades for conducting Bizet’s Pearl Fishers at the Metropolitan Opera. At 51, he’s a less established conductor than Eschenbach, 75, who already had a storied career as both a top piano soloist and conductor when he took the baton in D.C. (In the classical world, any conductor under 60 is considered “young,” as many transition to conducting after a career as an instrumental performer.) Noseda, though trained as a pianist and composer, has been conducting most of his life, beginning at age 27. In this sense he splits the difference somewhat between his two predecessors at the NSO, pianist-conductor Eschenbach and conductor-conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Noseda’s relative youth isn’t a bad thing for the Kennedy Center. First, he’ll probably stick around longer than Eschenbach, who ties Antal Doráti as the NSO’s shortest-ever tenured music director. Second, he won’t be able to command the $2 million salary the Kennedy Center paid Eschenbach, making him the highest paid music director in the country, which seemed inappropriate since the NSO is not the best orchestra in the country. (The Kennedy Center justified that salary by inventing a position just for Eschenbach, music director of both the Kennedy Center and the NSO; with Noseda, the job reverts to being an NSO-only directorship. The Post reports his salary to be in the unspecified six figures.)
Orchestra musicians reportedly like him: After a successful guest spot with the NSO last November, Midgette quotes trombonist Matthew Guilford—who was on a search committee made up of players and management—as saying that other orchestra members told the committee to “get this guy.” Though that’s what they say about every incoming music director, Eschenbach included. One anonymous, apparent NSO musician complains in Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog of a “chaotic, catastrophic, dull and messy period under Eschy.” Though if there were complaints of Eschenbach’s famous seat-of-the-pants conducting style, switching things up between rehearsal and performance, the NSO did a better job of keeping them under wraps than the Philadelphia Orchestra did, where Eschenbach faced an open revolt that ultimately landed him in D.C.
Time will tell what this means for musicianship, where the NSO has long endured a second-tier status to top orchestras like the New York and L.A. Philharmonic, legacy orchestras like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and even arguably behind our neighbors up I-95 in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Eschenbach was brought on in large part to bring the NSO into the top tier of U.S. orchestras, which he failed to do: he raised the orchestra’s profile with his star power alone, but performance quality was uneven, varying widely from one concert to the next. But that star power counted for something, as he was able to bring buddies like Lang Lang and Renée Fleming to the Kennedy Center on a regular basis. Similarly, the NSO will look to capitalize on Noseda’s personal connections, particularly in the opera world, such as superstar soprano Anna Netrebko.
Programming, too, will likely stay in a European vein with the Italian conductor. It’s always been odd that the NSO has had so few American directors despite being, nominally, an orchestra representing the nation. But the orchestra rose to prominence under Russian director Mstislav Rostropovich in the ’70s and ’80s, and took a deliberate turn away from American programming after the disappointing tenure of Slatkin, its last American director.
But for all the complaints about Slatkin, he was a better technician than Eschenbach, and could fine tune (some would say micromanage) an orchestra section by section in a way Eschenbach did not care to. NSO directors wear many hats, many of which have little to do with music: fundraising, PR, cultural diplomacy. The hope is that Noseda turns out to be a real conductor; less celebrity and more nuts-and-bolts quality control.
As for the early timing, Noseda was rumored to be in the running for the same job with the New York Philharmonic, which is also searching for a new director to replace Alan Gilbert. This may be hype, but it’s possible the NSO rushed to hire Noseda before a bigger orchestra could snag him. If that’s the case, it’s a promising sign.
Handout photo via Gianandrea Noseda