Getting to know the NSO

Switching hometown orchestras is interesting. I'd been attending San Francisco Symphony concerts for over a decade before I began writing about them back in 2009, so I was already well acquainted with the orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, Davies Symphony Hall, and the audience. Stepping into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for the first time last week was both disorienting (shoebox box theaters are rare on the West Coast) and exciting  -- the Kennedy Center houses the equivalent of Davies, the War Memorial Opera House, the Herbst Theater, and much more all under one roof, plus there's a constant flow of tourists and event attendees milling around. I was there three times over the past couple of weeks, getting an introductory glimpse into the present and the future: first, a National Symphony Orchestra concert led by outgoing Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, followed by the NSO's first concert led by Gianandrea Noseda since he was named Eschenbach's successor. Additionally, I paid a second visit to the KC Jukebox in the upstairs Atrium space, where Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates puts on alt-classical performances a few times each season (I also went to one this past spring). 

The concert led by Eschenbach last week was an odd juxtaposition, featuring Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto in D as the centerpiece sandwiched between two Tchaikovsky pieces. The takeaway, probably unintentional, was a picture of two composers: one can't stay put long enough to develop a good idea, and the other didn't know when to move on. The orchestra made an exuberant case for both, but Marsalis' piece, a commission by the NSO and a number of other orchestras and festivals, easily stole the show with its whirlwind tour of American musical history featuring countless nods to its influencers (Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein, Ives, plus assorted strains of rock, blues and jazz), and a dazzling performance by violinist Nicola Benedetti, for whom Marsalis composed the piece and who's played a steady role as collaborator in its ongoing development (the current four-part cadenza is version #32). The concerto seems hell-bent on displaying Marsalis' mastery of orchestral timbres as well as his encyclopedic musical knowledge, in both the music for the soloist and orchestra, with results that simultaneously excite with constant sudden entrances from unexpected yet familiar voices and then frustrate by taking their leave too soon, immediately replaced by yet another voice boisterously barging in. It's a cornucopia of brief delights, in which none are developed and a sense of cohesion lies just beyond reach. Another frustration comes from the sense that Marsalis is taking a nostalgic look over his shoulder at America's musical past, seemingly uninterested in what the future might sound like. Still it thrills, driven by Benedetti's virtuosity, whether it be in the form of the tremulous entrance forcing the listener to pay close attention before it blooms into a languid song of the South, or the histrionics of the cadenza which incorporates rock star shredding, shuffles, and a Scottish jig. All that, and much, much more, led by Eschenbach in a manner that more or less kept it all together with a casual grace punctuated by sharply crystalized moments, such as when he had the brass section suddenly rise up on its feet as if the whole gig had suddenly been transported to a New Orleans street corner.

Like its predecessors, there's a reason Tchaikovsky's 3rd Symphony doesn't get as much play as its successors. Not surprisingly it has its gorgeous moments and some lovely melodies, but it's also quite lengthy and repetitive. Its best ideas were revisited with more fruitful results in the later symphonies, but nevertheless it was interesting to hear, especially given the impressive, majestic contributions from the horns and brass, and vibrant playing from the string section. That vibrancy wasn't evident during the opening Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, which was a bit effusive and gleefully messy, as if the band were using it as warm-up for Marsalis' party.

Exactly one week later the Concert Hall felt much different, not least because it was packed and the sense of expectation was palpable (I was slightly shocked by the number of empty seats during the previous week's concert). Noseda amusingly introduced himself and explained why we were about to hear this particular program, a nearly complete performance (42 of 52 sections) of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, an evening-length ballet score originally composed in 1935 and revised in 1940 and 1946, with the orchestra growing larger each time. In fact, the orchestra for this piece is immense, stretching completely across the Concert Hall's wide stage. 

Noseda's vigorous physicality on the podium is a marked departure from Eschenbach's laid-back cool, a contrast between emphatically telegraphed precision and free-flowing ease. I don't have the experience with the orchestra to note any differences in their responses to the two conductors, but it appeared to me the musicians were committed to showing Noseda what they could do, and seemed wholly engaged in following his lead. What especially stood out to me during the performance was the lustrous quality of the string section -- it has a resonant vibrancy that manages to avoid sounding overly bright.

Without dancers, and even with cuts, Romeo and Juliet feels a tad long for a concert performance. The upside is its dozens of segments provide ample opportunities for each section of the orchestra to step into the forefront and shine. With the exception of some occasional woofiness from the horns, the musicians stepped up to meet the challenge and if they weren't deliberately trying to show the full house what the future holds, one could be forgiven for reading such intent into what was an exciting, often riveting performance. When it was over, I overheard a lot of comments enthusiastically looking forward to the future.

Speaking of the future, eventually a lot of classical music concerts are going to look something like Bates' KC Jukebox series, with its mix of club environment staples (booze, lounge chairs, dance floor) and forward-looking presentation of classical and contemporary music. Following the format of Bates' Mercury Soul club appearances, music performances were interspersed with DJ sets by Bates, joined this time by NYC-based violinist/composer Daniel Roumain. The audience appreciated NSO musicians performing Stravinsky's Concertino, Bates' Stereo is King, the first and third movements of John Adams's Chamber Symphony No. 1, and Alexandra Osborne's take on one of Bach's violin sonatas, but the highlight was Roumain and Bates working as a duet, with the composer manning turntables and computers while Roumain gave a low-key masterclass in what one can do with a violin, ranging from tapping out hip-hop flavored beats, fascinating heavy metal pizzicatos, all interspersed between displays of traditional prowess. More please.

Top photo: Gianandrea Noseda.
If you liked this, like A Beast in a Jungle on Facebook for more.