Washington Classical Review »Blog Archive» NSO and Noseda perform “Name That Tune” during an unusual evening of composers’ surprises
When the National Symphony Orchestra only has to sell 250 seats to fill the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, that opens up possibilities.
Thursday evening, for the second of musical director Gianandrea Noseda’s shows in front of a live audience since the start of the pandemic, it meant a “surprise” concert. No program was published before the concert or distributed, leaving listeners the chance to experience the music without prejudice.
Noseda clearly enjoyed his role as the puzzle master, teasing audiences with clues about each of the six pieces before the ONS played them. He then playfully responded to the crowd’s guesses before revealing the composer’s name after each performance. The selections were generally off the beaten track, with only about half identifiable by critical ears. The experience was like a musical quiz night, with an exceptionally charming Italian host.
(This review will avoid spoils to preserve the experience, but you can check out the program now if you want to check your answers.)
The first piece, Serenade, dates from 1957, composed by an American also known for his skillful arrangements of music for radio, television and film. NSO strings took schmaltzy writing for their instruments and performed it, showcasing cellos and violas in different passages. Principal violin Nurit Bar-Josef had fiery solos, as did principal keyboardist Lambert Orkis on grand piano who featured prominently.
The second piece was revealed by its unusual instrumentation, a Duo-Concertino composed in 1947, towards the end of the long and rich life of its composer. After an introduction by the ardent quintet of the leading stringed instrumentalists of the ONS, solo clarinetist Lin Ma flew in a clear and expressive manner through his solo passages. A more playful contrasting section featured principal Sue Heineman’s bassoon solo.
Heineman was then the star of the slow section of this piece, his poignant playing accompanied by string tremolos and a misty harp, in a skilful demonstration of the sometimes questioned melodic and expressive power of the instrument. A cheerful double cadence for the soloists led to the final section, whipped into a floating dance by the gestures of Noseda, a Viennese melody with echoes of Der Rosenkavalier.
Another lush string piece followed, familiar from the last time the ONS played it, at their innovative Labor Day in-car concert. The violin section had a more rarefied sound than under similar exposure conditions at last week’s concert, capping a lush, soaring overall sound. As with the opening track, Noseda kept the pace up, urgently building to strive for climaxes. This DC-born composer, then just in his twenties, orchestrated this piece from the second movement of one of his string quartets.
ONS third soloist, solo double bassist Robert Oppelt, appeared after the intermission in a short Elegy by an Italian composer known as “Paganini of the double bass”. Oppelt sang the melody of the opera, on a cushion of soft strings, adding delicious touches like a scalar portamento going up the highest string. In addition to emphasizing the melodic power of this great instrument, Oppelt excelled in many bel canto flourishes and virtuoso fireworks in this final section.
The fifth track was another Serenade by an American composer, someone Noseda once described as “very close to me”. In a program composed mainly of 20th century music, it was the least sweet work, with exceptional writing for strings only, full of unexpected chromatic harmonic turns. A beautiful contrapuntal interaction also belied the young age of the composer, barely 18, when he wrote this op. 1. (Both Serenades were early NSOs.)
By far the most substantial work is the Stellar Conclusion, a multi-movement reworking of 17th and 18th century music by a 20th century Italian composer also dear to Noseda’s heart. Numerous instrumental imitations of bird chirping betrayed the identity of the piece, but that did not matter as the composer’s masterful orchestration provided so many delicacies.
The solo oboist Nicholas Stovall cooed very charmingly in the second movement, against a background of rustling harp, silver bass flute and chirping violin. The chuckle motif of the third movement was broadcast around the orchestra in hilarious explosions, ending with a triumphant rooster crow from the trumpet. Noseda polished the hushed playing of the fourth movement, with whispering flutes and low instruments marked by reflections of celesta in an eerie nocturnal calm.
The repeating two-note motif featured in the final movement sounded obsessively over even more watercolor washes of brilliant and varied orchestration. Having featured for most of the original chamber-type combinations, the composer elicited a more dramatic orchestral sweep in this finale, including a heraldic return to the frenzied air of the opening movement. It was a goodbye kiss from Noseda, who will only return to the ONS podium in September.
A video recording of this concert will be released to digital subscribers at a later date. ONS now visits Wolf Trap for its summer performances, starting with the Bologna Opera The Anonymous Lover 8 p.m. on June 18. wolftrap.org