Noseda strikes gold with Beethoven

The completely full house must have been a gratifying sight for the National Symphony Orchestra musicians as they came out on stage last night. NSO concerts are often lightly attended on Thursdays, even when the program is only given twice that week. The earlier starting time and the impending Friday workday can keep fence-sitters away. This week’s program (repeated both tonight and tomorrow) has no soloist and includes a substantial work that would tend to dampen turnout, the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 2. But the prospect of hearing NSO music director Gianandrea Noseda lead the most famous symphony of all time (Beethoven’s Fifth) brought area music-lovers out in force.  

And for the most part, the audience got a concert that repaid their devotion. Noseda imparts crackling energy, bordering on impatience, to everything he conducts. His standards of execution, both for himself and for the orchestra, are higher than his predecessor’s, and he’s doing his best to stabilize and upgrade his roster of musicians.  

I was nonplussed to see him use a score in the Beethoven – I’d bet half the audience felt they knew the piece well enough to lead it without one – but he didn’t look at it much, and he certainly held and expressed clear ideas. He delivered a headlong first movement (the opening fermatas shorter than I’ve ever heard them, and no dawdling in the little oboe cadenza towards the end), a light, almost dance-like Andante, and then a Scherzo that seemed unsure of itself; not a march of triumph but something more tentative. Noseda was carefully setting up perhaps the greatest two minutes of re-imagination in the entire symphonic literature; the last quarter of the Scherzo into the beginning of the finale.  

Instead of a rote final repeat of the Scherzo, as had been done up to that point by him and every composer before him, Beethoven completely re-orchestrated this blazing music into a spooky, nearly silent dance of skeletons. Instead of then bringing the movement to a close, he composed an extended transition passage with the timpani ominously goading the violins, and then the whole orchestra from gloomiest darkness to the nearly blinding sunlight. Upon reaching the finale, the range and volume of the orchestra explodes with the sudden appearance of a contrabassoon, piccolo, and three trombones, all of whom had been sitting mute up until then, and none of whom had appeared in any previous symphony, by Beethoven or anyone else of any stature. This mold-breaking would have left audiences in 1808 absolutely dumfounded, and the cumulative effect even today can shock.

Noseda felt and imparted all of this drama without excessive underlining; indeed, one could call him almost businesslike. But a masterpiece like this speaks loudly to an audience as if it’s its own interpreter, and the cheers at the end certainly validated this approach. The only objective criticism I would level is my perennial one; the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s acoustics are not kind to orchestral strings, and too few conductors balance the different instrumental choirs properly. Perhaps the blend at the podium is different, but Noseda should really take a few minutes out of every rehearsal and listen to the orchestra from the back of the hall.  Long notes from the winds and brass always drown out faster passages in the strings, at every dynamic level. Many important and beautiful lines are lost this way even if the overall effect is stirring.

This was an even worse problem in the evening’s second piece, the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn. In the first, third, and sixth variations, and in the finale, many passages came out as a congealed mush because of sustained notes that hid everything else. And here I would quibble as well about the interpretation. Again, Noseda always conveys a sense of tight control, and the music-making never lacks character or momentum in any given passage. But it was highly unusual of Brahms to write a set of variations that were all in different tempos; the challenge here for the conductor is to give the work a feeling of unity. Noseda did not help himself with unnecessary pauses between the variations; the piece came out in a series of episodes, like in Pictures at an Exhibition. He was also a little too trusting of the orchestra in the quicksilver Variation V, beating once per bar (it’s in 6/8), resulting in sloppy ensemble.

The Schoenberg is a work I’ve tried to love for years, but have given up. Most of it was written during his early, post-romantic period, and it is not atonal; but neither is it appealing or memorable.  Though the composer’s rhetoric is skillful and varied, the continually-meandering harmonies -- inoffensive in themselves -- lead the ear nowhere. There are many yearning “expressive” phrases and gestures, but when everything is “expressive,” nothing is. I also wonder how the NSO musicians felt at the end of the piece (whose parts would’ve required much more individual practice than the rest of the program combined) when the applause ended before Noseda could exit the stage after a single bow.

All was forgiven by the end of the evening. I’m not sure why the orchestra was playing with reduced strings (especially given the problems I mentioned above), but this night was certainly a smashing success from management’s standpoint. It showed that classical audiences aren’t shrinking, they’re just picky.  

Photo by Stefano Pasqualetti