Home Entertainment Review | With a powerhouse program, NSO limbers up for the road ahead

Review | With a powerhouse program, NSO limbers up for the road ahead

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Review | With a powerhouse program, NSO limbers up for the road ahead

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Thursday night at the Kennedy Center felt like a high point in the journey of the National Symphony Orchestra. And not just because of the music (though, that). It was more about the view.

With maestro Gianandrea Noseda’s first European tour with the NSO just weeks away, the weekend’s program — which welcomes the orchestra’s future tourmate, pianist Seong-Jin Cho — offered a chance to look and listen ahead.

But Noseda also took the opportunity to look back, using his opening remarks to set the evening into the orchestra’s larger arc, and paying respect to his predecessors from the podium.

He credited Leonard Slatkin (who led the NSO from 1996 to 2008) for the orchestra’s ease and quick absorption of new material. He pointed to Christoph Eschenbach (2010-2017) for instilling within the NSO a mastery of the core European repertoire. Lastly, he identified the closing number of the evening — Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5” — as a signature of the orchestra’s time under Mstislav Rostropovich (1977-1994).

From there, the evening’s attention turned entirely to the present and the strengths of the NSO. Key among these is its composer-in-residence, Carlos Simon, whose “Wake Up!” opened the night (and will appear as a staple on the orchestra’s European programs).

Nineteen of Simon’s works have been programmed by the NSO since his arrival in 2021 (including nine commissions across multiple genres), and the composer recently extended his contract with the orchestra through the 2026-2027 season. The NSO also announced the forthcoming release of Simon’s “Four Symphonic Works,” with an advance EP (“A Folklore Symphony”) arriving this week. (Additionally, this week the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced Simon’s appointment to a three-year position as its inaugural Composer Chair.)

Thus a celebratory spirit swirled around this first D.C. performance of “Wake Up!” — composed by Simon as a “Concerto for Orchestra,” with each section pushing the spotlight to the point of distraction.

Like many of Simon’s works, “Wake Up!” is alive with kinetic, rhythmic energy. It wakes with a start and a stretch, limbering up with grand thrusts of brass and shimmering chimes, as though rubbing the sleep from its eyes. A lithe trio of flute, oboe and bassoon guided the way into Simon’s widescreen tour of the orchestra — xylophones raced like an action hero across an unsteady bridge of brass and strings; a militaristic stomp relents into a passage of shivering violins, nervous woodblocks, rumbling timpani and clanging metal — truly an orchestral alarm clock.

In his exploration of the brass and winds, Simon tapped his sentimental side — gorgeous tangles of oboe and flute, rapturous dialogue with the strings, evocatively muted trumpets, little dots of harp and vibraphone. A charming exchange between concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and principal cello David Hardy offered the calm before a descent into catastrophic dissonance — a rearing, roaring darkness that tightened, sharpened and retreated.

An interlude of golden horns introduced the concerto’s bracing finish, a little ostinato passed between the percussion and the strings, a triumphant theme mounting across the brass, a heroic rumble of timpani. There’s a bit of a cinematographer and choreographer to this composer, and “Wake Up!” put his many sides into thrilling simultaneous motion.

The acclaimed Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho visited the NSO around this time last year to perform a barn-burning Brahms No. 1 — will join the orchestra in Madrid, Berlin, Milan and Hamburg to perform Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4.” But first he’ll get these three performances in Washington — and Thursday did not sound at all like warm-up.

The “No. 4” was premiered as part of the marathon 1808 Vienna concert that also introduced the “Choral Fantasy,” the Fifth and the Sixth Symphony. That performance was also Beethoven’s last as a soloist with an orchestra — and Cho opted to honor the composer’s original cadenzas.

He performed it with delightful poetry, variety and humor — in the first movement “Allegro moderato,” he paired a plonky schoolboy irony in the left hand with a virtuosic flurry of notes with his right — crisp and clear and even. He’s a painterly pianist, as adept with mesmerizingly muted hues as with bright, colorful gestures. Noseda and Cho shared several smiling glances and knowing looks, the former buttressing the sound with strong strings and decorating it with elegant, silky winds.

In the second movement, the maestro emphasized the moto in “Andante con moto,” sternly stating its entrance, but guiding the discussion to a whisper before leaping into the energizing “Rondo: Vivace” of the finale.

This last movement, with its not-so-reckless abandon, was the big thrill of the night, Cho quickening his dialogue with the orchestra, intensifying his feats of dynamic derring-do, even applying a bit of barroom swagger here and there. Cho sounded perfectly at ease with the orchestra, and perfectly settled into this concerto. (Now to do it six more times!)

He quelled an extended standing ovation with a tenderly rendered encore of Liszt’s “Consolation No. 3

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At the start of the evening, Noseda introduced Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5” as a work “full of fake joy,” earning genuine chuckles from the audience.

But one of the reasons “No. 5” made such a thoughtful bookend to Simon’s wake-up call is that both composers share a sense of bothness — an ability to say two things at once, thread angst through merriment, smiles through tears. There’s an uncertainty at work in the music that never fully commits to one expression.

In Shostakovich’s case, this multiplicity was protective. Under the oppressive eyes (and ears) of Stalin, the composer, reviled in the press for the uncompromisingly provocative “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk,” shelved his equally feather-ruffling “Symphony No. 4” and produced — amid the persecutions and show trials of the Great Terror — this beast of a symphony, which seems throughout to happily grit its teeth. This was a composer tasked with saying the unsayable against the unspeakable.

Noseda’s 2020 recording of “Symphony No. 5” with the London Symphony Orchestra offers a good reference of how the conductor approaches its emotional complexity. But Thursday’s account was notably less toothy and hot than that recording, which hangs razor-sharp scare quotes at either end of the symphony.

Via the NSO, the textures of the strings were rich, warm, satisfying and subtle enough to channel the composer’s subtextual discomforts. The horns and brass, too, were in top form — casting warm halos in the first movement before swerving into shows of sneering mock patriotism. Seemingly merry bassoons and seemingly sprightly flutes and oboes opened the rambunctious ländler of the second movement, its rhythm ushering us past its telling (and slightly demonic) dissonances.

The warm strings of third movement (“Largo”) gave way to a chilling passage of scrubbing violins, pining cello, slashes of bass and plaintive violas before alighting atop Lisa Emenheiser’s lucent celeste. And from its titanic, tympanic entrance onward, the mounting and ultimately triumphant energy of the final movement had audience members bouncing their legs and bobbing their heads.

It was a performance that foregrounded how far this orchestra has come, and how much promise lies in the journey ahead. Consider this orchestra road-ready.

“Musical Roots: Noseda & Friends” repeats Friday and Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, www.kennedy-center.org

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