Performing Arts: The NSO Plays Italian

A conversation with conductor


At the entrance of the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations a larger-than-life poster of Gianandrea Noseda, the new music director of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), confronts the visitor. The maestro stands, cold eyed and arms folded, as though waiting for an explanation why you are late for his master class. It’s a contradictory choice of image to portray this bright-eyed, soft voiced, man who conducts his conversation with graceful hand gestures. On the podium, the folded arms posture is even less typical of his whirlwind style of gesture and movement, leaping towards heaven and falling back on earth.

Noseda is the first Italian conductor to lead the 86-year-old NSO, where his predecessors have been a Dutchman, a Russian, two Hungarians, two Americans and a German. Now 52 and firmly established as a star in both the orchestra and operatic worlds, he has acquired a reputation for breathing fresh life into fixtures of the musical repertoire. In addition to his Washington appointment, he remains music director of the Turin Opera in Italy (the Teatro Regio di Torino) and guest conductor of both the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and the Israeli Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. Noseda had previously been music director of the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. He raised its level of artistry and recognition, and did the same for the Turin Opera, which had suffered from proximity to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Both achievements doubtless made him an attractive candidate to take over the NSO, described by Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette as “lackluster, and haunted by the curse of mediocrity.”


Asked to name his biggest challenge in taking over the National Symphony Orchestra, as he sat in a small office in the Kennedy Center dressing room area, this was Noseda’s reply: “When I first met the NSO as a visiting conductor I found an orchestra with a huge, high potential to deliver. Their problem is to deliver continuously, every single concert, every single moment. I’m aware, based on the last few weeks, that there is work to do, but it can be marvelous work.There are no weak links. The challenge is what? To ensure the NSO always gives an important interpretation of the music.”

WASHINGTON LIFE: Five years, is that the time frame you envision for your association with the orchestra?

GIANANDREA NOSEDA: When I take on a post I don’t think in terms of two or three years and then away.You can start doing serious work in two or three years, but to do a thorough job you need more – and to leave a legacy you need a little while longer. I think of constructing a reality – and growth to create an important brand.

WL: What do you think the cumulative effect on the ensemble after having had resident conductors from five different musical traditions has been, and what do you think will be your impact?

GN: The impact of musical directors of several different musical traditions will have been to shape an orchestra capable of transforming its way of playing to suit the repertory [of each conductor]. This is a plus. Under Mstislav Rostropovich, they explored the vast Russian repertory, but also the different way that Russians approach playing it. Leonard Slatkin, being American, had his own way of approaching German music. I bring my characteristic approach: I can’t avoid a distinctive way of phrasing. There is an Italian way of approaching the music. To conduct “An American in Paris” you have to know how to swing, which is not the Italian way. For example [he sings a slow melody from the Gershwin piece], the risk in Italian hands is that it will become … operatic.

WL: What can Washington audiences expect by way of programming? You have revived Alfredo Casella, a half forgotten Italian early 20th century composer. Can we expect to hear some more of Casella’s many italian contemporaries – Ildebrando Pizzetti, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and not just italians – how about William Walton, who is rarely heard, or Francis Poulenc?

GN: There are many Italian composers who deserve more attention. I’ve conducted various pieces by [Gian Francesco] Malipiero and Pizzetti, and last week in the NSO’s first subscription concert we played Luigi Dallapiccola.

WL: What determines your program choices?

GN: Before the choice of composers comes the idea of the story you want to communicate in the concert. For example, what’s the concept behind this season’s first subscription concert? Ottorino Respighi’s “Fontane di Roma” [Fountains of Rome], “The Three- Cornered Hat” by Manuel de Falla, Gershwin’s “American in Paris,” and “Poeme” by Ernest Chausson, add up to a hypothetical voyage through southern Europe–Italy, France, Spain. “Three Cornered Hat” is played, but not that often, the music is splendid. And Gershwin, who goes to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.We need to rethink our approach to programming, and how to arouse the public’s curiosity, and stimulate that curiosity by guaranteeing the highest quality. The public’s reaction to an unknown piece will be: “I don’t know it,” but I know the orchestra will play it at the highest level.

WL: You conduct both operatic performances and orchestral concerts. Which do you prefer?

GN: Both. they are different fields but I feel at home in both. Except that when I’ve been conducting only opera for a stretch, I miss conducting concerts, and the other way around. I spent most of October with the Turin Opera, and began to feel the need to change to the concert podium. Now I’m here at the NSO, and I know that by mid- December I’ll be thinking ‘I need opera. I need opera.’

WL: Did you start as an orchestral concert conductor or with opera?

GN: I conducted my first orchestral concert in 1993. But I’m Italian, so I conducted my first opera in 1994 – Rossini’s “Cenerentola” [Cinderella] at Cosenza, Italy. Opera conducting entered my life in a strong way in 1997 when [Russian conductor Valery] Gergiev appointed me principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky. But even then, 60 percent of my conducting was still from the concert podium, not the opera orchestra pit. Today, it’s about 50/50.

WL: When do you plan to take the NSO on tour?

GN: We’re working on touring plans. To live up to our name as the National Symphony Orchestra we’re looking into arranging residence engagements in other parts of the United States. We’re also exploring the possibility of a Japanese tour and a European tour, and for these we’re looking for sponsors. We’re also looking into methods of streaming, such as the live streaming Medici, both audio and video.

This interview appeared in the Holiday 2017 issue of Washington Life Magazine. 

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