'High energy' conductor takes US orchestra to new heights


Washington (AFP)

In the concert hall, the sound is crisp, slicing through the air like a sharp knife.

Gianandrea Noseda's baton is a divining rod that draws fresh energy from a once sluggish National Symphony Orchestra.

"You have to take things seriously and to get things done in the right way, try to motivate, encourage (like) parents," the 54-year-old conductor said in an interview at Washington's Kennedy Center the NSO calls home.

The Milan native's tall stature is imposing on the podium, where he arcs his arms out while scanning musicians with his piercing blue-green eyes.

"It's just really high energy all the time," said concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, whose role as principal violinist makes her a key liaison between Noseda and the musicians.

"Every note matters and it feeds back to the orchestra," she said, with fresh marks on her neck and above her collarbone from a robust 2.5-hour rehearsal.

"We play 100 percent because he gives 100 percent -- he actually gives 110 (percent)."

Noseda only spends about 12 weeks out of the year in Washington, but that's typical for a music director in great international demand.

And after turning around Turin's Teatro Regio from a relatively unknown provincial ensemble to an internationally acclaimed one, Noseda has already taken the NSO to new heights over two seasons.

- 'Here for the music' -

Rather than retreat immediately to his dressing room after a concert, Noseda thanks each of the 100-some musicians as they walk off stage with a "thank you, bravo," wiping the sweat off his brow.

"I feel like when you walk in and he asks, 'How are you?' he actually really means it," said Bar-Josef.

"We are in this together. He's here for the music, we're here for the music. It's not, 'I'm above you and I'm better than you.'"

Noseda only held a couple of rehearsals with the NSO before leading Franz Liszt's monumental "Faust Symphony," which demands bewildering harmonic flexibility.

The orchestra will perform Act II of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" with soprano Christine Goerke and tenor Stephen Gould at New York's Lincoln Center in November. And in 2020, it will tour Japan and China.

"I appreciate that he challenges us in that way," said Bar-Josef, now in her 17th NSO season.

"It's very risky... It gives me a sense of him telling us, 'I have confidence in you.'"

With his contract extended through 2024-2025, Noseda has a chance to leave his mark on the orchestra.

He's already added eight new musicians, including associate concertmaster Ying Fu and principal clarinetist Lin Ma.

- 'Very non-normal life' -

The NSO, meanwhile, has rewarded Noseda with a foothold in the United States.

Noseda is principal guest conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with top roles at the Stresa Festival and Orquestra de Cadaques.

In addition to regular appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and other orchestras worldwide, he's set to become Zurich Opera House music director from the 2021-2022 season.

"The most important thing is to try to live normally in a very non-normal life," said Noseda, whose wife Lucia accompanies him on his travel-packed schedule.

"I try to wake up at more or less the same time, to have breakfast, to find those moments because most of the time you are jetlagged."

As with most orchestras, the NSO is working hard to attract new, younger audiences to hear centuries-old music -- overwhelmingly composed by white males.

There are Friday night concerts presented by singer-songwriter Ben Folds, pop-up performances and evenings at The Anthem, an auditorium whose regular fare includes Foo Fighters, The National or Erykah Badu.

"All the art forms that last more than five-six minutes, it's difficult to connect," acknowledged Noseda -- who sums up his commitment to challenging his audience like this: "Can you imagine eating every single day pasta, pasta, pasta?"

"It's a long process, but the first part is just to go and take the music outside of these walls," he added. "Perform at the highest possible temperature and people will come."

The NSO will perform and record all of Beethoven's nine symphonies during global celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth next year.

In a tour de force, Noseda plans to do so over just 18 days.

"When you reopen the scores, (Beethoven) always surprises me because I see elements I've never seen before even though they were always there," Noseda said.

He promises to bring a "Latin" touch to Beethoven's "very Germanic" humor -- and to approach it with an unwavering sense of wonder.