But about that Berio arrangement...

The National Symphony Orchestra’s music director Gianandrea Noseda's final performances this season offer well-trodden repertoire, affectionately performed. Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite and Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony bookend the glamorous Isabel Leonard in a set of songs by Manuel De Falla. In his opening remarks last night, Noseda charmingly confessed that the orchestra knew the Copland better than he, but that he enjoyed learning it from them. Though Noseda had his head in the score most of the time, and the Mexican Dance section lacked abandon, the goofy Celebration music seemed to catch his Italianate fancy and he danced along with it.  

De Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas is a charming collection of gently ribald folk songs, for voice and piano. I’d never heard these orchestrations by Luciano Berio, which belong in the wastebasket. That they often drowned Leonard out was the least of the problems (a more sensitive conductor could’ve just held the volume down); worse was the distortion of the simple accompaniments, trying to spread piano figurations onto instruments that can’t play as fast. Listening to this was like trying to spot a friend across eight lanes of busy traffic. When you could hear her, Leonard’s sleek, lustrous mezzo was a delight, whether in an affected low snarl or in the silvery top.  Her rhythms were only approximate in Nana, but the line was always lovely.  

An encore (Granada, by Augustine Lara), was awkwardly handled. The applause had ended for the De Falla and patrons began to stand, since it was intermission; but the lights stayed down and a stage-hand brought out a music stand for the soloist. Then she and Noseda came back out somewhat sheepishly. They should re-choreograph that for the next two performances.

With a piece as familiar as the Dvořák, everyone wants to bring something “new,” but the music is of such quality that a lovingly-prepared, middle-of-the-road interpretation is just as welcome. Noseda’s tempo in the Scherzo was a little too breathless, the fast string passages losing clarity; but otherwise everything was right where it belonged and where we remembered it. The English horn solo in the Largo had good projection, if not the most expressive tone. Thursday was not a stellar night for the horn section, with dropped notes in both the De Falla and here; and the timpani were often too loud. But for the rest, the timeless power of Dvořák’s masterpiece and the enthusiasm with which the players responded to Noseda’s prodding led to a sustained, cheering ovation.  

The program will be repeated Saturday evening and then a Sunday matinee. Next week the NSO begins a week-long Mozart festival, playing 11 works in three different programs.