Listen up, DC! There is a new Maestro in town. Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, whose impressive resume ranks him as one of the world’s most sought after conductors, opened his inaugural season as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra with a gala performance of Leonard Bernstein compositions. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and soloist Cynthia Erivo accompanied the orchestra.
“My favorite composer is the one I have to perform that particular night,” Noseda said in a video statement. Well, Bernstein was clearly his favorite at the NSO Gala. Bernstein, that polyglot composer whose oeuvre of musical theater, orchestral compositions, ballet and opera is as wide reaching as the work showcased at the Kennedy Center itself, is currently the focus of a year-long Kennedy Center celebration entitled Leonard Bernstein at 100.
The arrival of a new music director is a grand and infrequent event in the life of a symphony and this was the night for DC to learn just what the next five years might look like under the musical direction of Maestro Noseda. As patrons entered the theater, there was much chatter about the incoming conductor, then applause as the orchestra came on stage followed by the hush of anticipation.
It was clear from the first piece of the night (the buoyant overture from Candide) that Noseda would not be timid about injecting his own personality into his music or his life, a personality characterized by an energetic passion for his craft, self-deprecating humor and casual warmth as he invited patrons to join him on his journey with the NSO.
Noseda proved a great counterpart to Yo-Yo Ma who waltzed onto the stage with his own characteristic enthusiasm and vigor. Ma’s personal style and command of the cello filled the room with dramatic tension as he dove into the “Three Meditations” from Bernstein’s MASS.
The choice to perform MASS tonight was especially poignant given that the piece was composed by Bernstein at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as the inaugural piece for the Kennedy Center opening in 1971.
I had never seen Yo-Yo Ma perform in person before, and it was a joy to behold as the lines between man and instrument blurred, and he progressed from quiet tenderness to careening exuberance, performing the music with his body as well as his cello. At times, he seemed to levitate off his chair, kicking his legs out and keeping time to the music with whimsical tilts of his head. Ma remained frozen after playing the final chord, arm extended, bow raised, keeping the audience under his spell for several hushed seconds until they processed the moment and erupted into enthusiastic applause.
(Fun fact: In 1962, a seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma performed for an audience that included both Leonard Bernstein and John F. Kennedy.)
Yo-Yo Ma was followed onstage by vocalist Cynthia Erivo, who enchanted the audience with five songs showcasing Berstein’s achievements in musical theater: “Ain’t Got No Tears Left,” from On the Town; “Lonely Town,” from On the Town; “Take Care of This House,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; “Somewhere,” from West Side Story; and “A Little Bit in Love,” from Wonderful Town.
Erivo, a native of Great Britain, burst onto the US scene with her Tony-Award winning 2015 performance as Celie in The Color Purple. It is not an understatement to say that her performance in this role caused such a stir in the Broadway community that she joined the echelons or our great Broadway divas – all before her 30th birthday. Her voice, which moves easily from lilting and angelic to powerful and soaring, is matched by her strong and vocal personality. I, for one, am glad she shows no signs of returning to Britain anytime soon!
The evening concluded with the “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story. Now, the score of West Side Story has brought me to tears ever since my mother bequeathed me the OBC recording when I was seven, but never have I heard it performed with such splendor. The 96-piece orchestra breathed new life and nuance into the “Symphonic Dances,” which were composed as a concert suite in 1961 with orchestrations based on the 1957 musical. Maestro Noseda’s playful touch was apparent as the composition slid through the prologue, into the charming “Somewhere,” the dancable “Mambo,” straight through to the dramatic “Rumble” before coming full circle and concluding with a gentle reprise of “Somewhere.”
Maestro Gianandra Noseda is clearly a man living out his life’s purpose. It was fascinating to watch him embody the music performed by this skilled orchestra. It is a safe bet that the NSO is headed into an era of both passion and inclusivity under his musical direction.
Noseda is the seventh music director in the 87 year history of the National Symphony Orchestra, joining the ranks of distinguished conductors Christoph Eschenbach, Leonard Slatkin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Antal Dorati, Howard Mitchell, and Hans Kindler.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
The National Symphony Orchestra Inaugural Gala Concert played one night only on Sunday, September 24, 2017, at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For information on future NSO performances, go online. For information on future Leonard Bernstein at 100 events, go online.