Keeping mum on the program was the least of the restrictions in the second live NSO concert in 15 months.

By: Jun. 04, 2021


The biggest surprise about the surprise program at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction fo Gianandrea Noseda may have been that it was happening at all.

It was only in March, near the one year mark of the pandemic lockdowns, that President Biden set a then-optimistic goal of barbecues and normalcy by the Fourth of July if "we do our part," wear masks and get vaccinated.

Well, look at us now. With D.C. vaccination rate nearing 70 percent there has been all manner of opening up since Memorial Day - in restaurants, movie theaters and now even performing arts centers.

Well, sort of.

The concert Thursday came with mask restrictions, temperature checks, no refreshment stand and seat distancing so extensive it looked more like a sparsely attended pre-show Q&A session than a full NSO performance (Fewer than 10 percent its nearly 2,500 capacity were allowed in, and yet it was still a sellout).

But could we even call it a full NSO performance? Of the 100 members of the orchestra, there was room, with all the required spacing on stage, for only 21 or so members for most of the evening - all in black masks masking black attire - and just three dozen when they were at their full complement.

Mostly, they were the kind of players who'd be able to be masked for an entire concert, and hence largely strings of some sort. When any brass or woodwinds were allowed in, it was with surrounding plexiglass, hauled in by stagehands, lest these musicians share anything more than heavenly sounds.

As conductor and host, Noseda was affable enough about the event, only the second NSO concert in 15 months. "The concert is a not a surprise for us," he said at the outset. "We rehearsed for it."

After a fully posted concert May 28, keeping mum on the selections was more a way of teasing the audience and testing them -- to have them hear a piece of music first rather than placing judgement on it because of any preexisting feelings about its composer.

So he played it like a game show, giving clues on date of composition and country of origin before soliciting the often-obscure answers from the sparse audience (naturally, some music major know-it-all knew all the answers).

Noseda's selections were largely from the 20th century, and he liked to point out how stellar compositions could come at the beginning of careers, as with the Samuel Barber and George Walker pieces he chose; or late, as with his selections from William Grant Still and Richard Strauss.

Perhaps because of the preponderance of strings, many of the pieces took on the tone of elegies, appropriate at the end of a period where nearly 600,000 died of a virus. And to be sure, Barber's 1928 Serenade for Strings, Opus 1 begins with a hushed solemnity. Walker's 1946 Lyric for Strings was written to the memory of his grandmother. Still's opening piece, Serenade for Orchestra, from 1957, has a similarly contemplative tone. And the title of Giovanni Bottesini's double bass showcase is itself Elegy No. 1 in D major for Bass and Strings.

The effect was moving and emotional, but it wasn't just the pandemic's rampage that changed in the world since the orchestra was regularly playing live. A racial reckoning was also playing across the world. Noseda and the NSO react to that by purposely breaking out of the dead white men canon that has defined classical music so long.

Hence the presence of Still, the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a professional orchestra, and D.C. native Walker, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. This after showcasing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the first Black students at the Royal College of Music, in the May 28 NSO return.

Noseda didn't mention any of this; nor did he mention that he chose pieces heavily reliant on strings, or those orchestrated largely for them, because it would suit a fully-masked orchestra. But when woodwinds and brass came in, they had an effect.

That came first in Strauss' late-career Duet-Concertino for Clarinet and Basoon that featured orchestra members Lin Ma and Sue Heineman. Ma gets a sweet, controlled tone out of his clarinet; and Heineman conjures rich tones from her 4-foot-5 instrument that requires her to bend her knees to get the most from it.

Strauss supposedly imagined the clarinet a dancing princess, first pursued by the bear, represented by the bassoon, who turns into a handsome prince. Despite the gender switch, the interplay is rewarding especially as the strings gain strength behind them, accompanied by a harp.

The other soloist featured out front was another one rarely seen in that spot. Robert Oppelt's bass took a strong, deep lead for the Elegy No. 1 by Bottesini, known in his day as the Paganini of the Double Bass. The 1870 work was the only one on the program not from the 20th century.

When the orchestra was at its fullest strength when 10 members of the woodwinds and brass lined up behind the strings and, more significantly, behind a wall of plexiglass dividers -- making them look like so many defendants in a Russian court.

It was notable how much wider and full the sound became with their presence performing the odd turns in Ottorino Respighi's concluding 1927 work, The Birds, which sounded like a much older work because its movements were based on pieces centuries older. The Dove is based on a piece by Jacques de Gallot from the 17th century. Another segment, The Hen, is derived from a harpsichord work by Jean-Phillipe Rameau from about the same time. The Nightingale was lifted from an anonymous 17th century Englishman, and the concluding The Cuckoo drawn from the music of Bernardo Pasquini.

Make no mistake, the plexiglass barriers had a deadening effect on the welcome sound of the brass and woodwinds, but the conductor strove to adjust to these limitations - just as he had to work with a diminished number of musicians, playing further away from one another than usual. It was interesting to hear how much effect such adjustments made.

Things may be forever different in concert halls. This performance had six cameras operating (one continually swooping its boom) for later broadcast on the Kennedy Center website. Some squeaky electronic noise I thought was associated with the camera equipment was likely coming from a nearby ill-adjusted hearing aid.

But the important thing all night was the presence of the audience, as small as it had to be. They were as quiet as I'd ever heard at a symphony as if to take in and relish every note. They clapped vigorously, knowing this was the first chance they'd had to do so in 15 months, and it was something the musicians and conductors obviously reveled in receiving after such a long time.

This part was certainly no surprise.

Photo credit: NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda conducting. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Surprise Program by the National Symphony Orchestra, with NSO Soloists, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda at the Kennedy Center June 3, will become available on the Kennedy Center's Digital Stage+ platform July 15-Aug. 13. Information can be found online.


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