Something of a high-stakes atmosphere pervades this week’s concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra. It’s performing an all-Russian program, always a touchstone harking back to the reign of Soviet émigré Mstislav Rostropovich over the NSO from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. And this week’s conductor is the NSO’s incoming music director, Gianandrea Noseda, in one of only two appearances this season prior to starting his four-year term in the 2016-2017 season.
Mr. Noseda achieved something of an incomplete success in last night’s first pass at Sergei Prokofiev’s full-length ballet score to Romeo and Juliet before a healthy though not capacity crowd in The Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Romeo and Juliet is arguably right at the top of the list of Prokofiev’s masterpieces. The full ballet, running without cuts to over two hours and 20 minutes, is loaded with pungent phrases and purposeful dissonances that reflect anxiety, social discord, and overwhelming human emotion, minus the gratuitous, stick-in-the-eye sarcasm and “Age of Steel” bombast that pervades much of Prokofiev’s other music.
Mr. Noseda has an international reputation in both symphonic and operatic music for pulling out details from his instrumental ensembles. Much of the measure of his success is whether he achieves performance buy-in by the musicians and audience comprehension of these details as part of the communicative whole, especially in an environment without the actual ballet dancers on stage (as they were in the Opera House last week for Prokofiev’s Cinderella by the San Francisco Ballet).
With all of its spicy harmonies, Romeo and Juliet must be one of the greatest pieces of symphonic music for interior string sections to play, and Mr. Noseda appeared to have the NSO’s second violins and violas in his lap throughout the evening. Particularly notable was a brief solo line by principal violist Daniel Foster, but many of the solos throughout the orchestra in Prokofiev’s 1935 score sit atop a bed of underlying soundscapes often involving divisis or further divisions of labor among section members, so a nice multiplier effect was in play provided by the NSO’s middle strings.
The first violins performed admirably as well, but in a not-atypical issue in the Concert Hall acoustic, there was a slightly “blobby” aspect to the violins in the racing tempos that Mr. Noseda employed in Prokofiev’s run-ups to the fights between the Montagues and the Capulets. It’s known that hearing one another in section work can be more challenging for orchestra musicians in the Concert Hall than in some other venues, and further performances tonight and Saturday of the ballet score may result in a sound that more fully coheres at the top. The NSO’s cellos had a surprisingly pinched tone in the first few of their many yearning melodies that begin once Romeo and Juliet have met, but their playing did appear to gain confidence and “bloom” as the evening continued.
The NSO’s brass work depended on the moment in a different way. At times there actually appeared to be a lack of full conviction somewhere in the trumpets and horns in Prokofiev’s dissonances, with the deliberately off-kilter notes smudged or popped or released too early. No such problem appeared in the more comparatively straightforward sections, including the ballet’s single most iconic section sometimes incorporated into popular culture, the Dance of the Knights. I wouldn’t mind if Mr. Noseda reminds the band that Prokofiev really did mean every note he wrote.
Another challenge that appeared in the first of three performances involved Mr. Noseda’s very admirable tendency to begin episodes at especially fleet rates of tempo to give the orchestra more landing room to slow down and fade out when called for. For example, not all of the NSO’s woodwinds seemed to follow him especially well at the slowing close of Romeo and Juliet’s love dance that ends Act 1 of the ballet. Working together more consistently with Mr. Noseda should be a benefit to this effect in the future.
For this concert presentation of what is really a ballet, the NSO employed visual projections of drawings representing the Verona landscape and the main characters, along with Shakespeare quotes and sometimes single-sentence plot indicators. The projected images certainly represented the Shakespeare play itself but not really the ballet at all, and they could have included much fuller crowd depictions to represent the many ball sequences, folk dances and street scenes that are so wonderfully depicted in Prokofiev’s music (even with some cuts by the NSO to bring in the concert at a more standard timing).
Simple plot points statically left up on the screen for 5 or 10 minutes at a time in particular seemed to drain energy from the proceedings. I would have either added rotating information along the way or simply dropped the screen indication once it had been provided rather than leave a boring single sentence of text hovering above the orchestra for far too long.
High hopes attend the arrival of Mr. Noseda, especially given frequent indications by Washington’s full-time classical music critics of attendance problems at the NSO’s regular subscription concerts. The affable and engaging Mr. Noseda is following the curious term of NSO Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, who is paid additional compensation as music director of The Kennedy Center but has not as far as I can see really broadened the NSO’s cultural purchase on Washington, especially to younger demographics.
The problem is that like many star international conductors these days, Mr. Noseda has several simultaneous appointments. He also runs an opera company in Turin in his native Italy, and is Principal Guest Conductor of both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, plus occasional conducting assignments at the Metropolitan Opera, so his time in Washington each year will be constrained. Nevertheless, NSO staff tells me that he knows the challenge, intends to take a home in the area and be seen grocery shopping with everyone else.
Let’s simply say that we’ll know if he succeeds if in two years’ time I hear people spontaneously mentioning his name, pronounced correctly (which by the way isn’t hard, just say “John” and then “Andrea” the European way with the accent on the second syllable, as in Andrea Bocelli, and you have it – Gianandrea Noseda) along with theatrical, pop music and sports stars here in Washington. It should be an interesting project to see if this all works out.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
National Symphony Orchestra: Noseda conducts Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was performed Thursday, November 3, 2016 at 7 p.m. in the Concert Hall at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The concert will be repeated tonight, November 4, 2016, and tomorrow night, Saturday, November 5, 2016, both at 8 p.m. For the NSO’s complete season schedule, see their ticket calendar.