Photo: Courtesy of the Kennedy Center
Photo: Courtesy of the Kennedy Center

Mozart in the District

It’s not so much what Gianandrea Noseda says so much as how he says it. The Italian-born conductor speaks with a drawl that makes you want to listen closer and, even over the phone, you can tell which topics he finds blasé and which cause his eyes to light up.

At the mention of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, Noseda demurs and says he’s seen little of the show. But it’s hard not to see some resemblances between him and the charismatic conductor in the series, played by Gael García Bernal. Noseda may not share the character’s penchant for drama, but he speaks about music and the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) with a similar passion. He’s also very enthusiastic about bringing the orchestra outside of the Kennedy Center’s symphony hall and into the community.

Noseda began his tenure as the music director for the NSO this fall, and has already conducted the NSO at a mid-November performance at The Anthem, one of The Wharf’s new music venues. The sold-out performance on November 15 featured works from composers Ottorino Respighi, Jules Massenet, Manuel de Falla and George Gershwin. He described the program as a musical buffet.

“Someone who wants sweetness or tenderness can find it in some spots of Respighi or Chausson,” he says. “Someone who wants something very rhythmical will find it in Gershwin or Falla.”

Noseda was particularly excited for the Massenet piece from the opera Thaïs as it features a solo for violin, performed at The Anthem by NSO Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. The concertmaster is young, but has been with the NSO for some time. Bar-Josef is the first chair violinist, and Noseda describes the position as the sort of right-hand man of the conductor.

“[As a conductor], if you have a good concertmaster, as well as other principals, let’s say 70 percent of your job is guaranteed.”

This prompts me to ask him what exactly it is that a conductor does. Noseda laughs at the question.

“People have the impression that the conductor just waves his hands.”

His job is to first and foremost motivate the musicians, to get them to commit to a performance. In practical terms, that entails not only keeping time, but knowing the parts of all the instruments and how to balance them in a live performance.

“You have to know the music of all the instruments and how to balance the sound, because if you have the trombones play loud, and you ask the violins to play loud, the loudness of the trombones is five times the loudness of the violins,” he says. “So how to combine these things, how to balance – it’s like a dish. If you put too much salt, at the end of the day, you don’t have the taste of the meat, fish or vegetable that you are eating, because it’s salty. Salt is necessary sometimes, but in limited quantity.”

Noseda is hopeful that his orchestra’s recent performance at The Anthem will attract listeners to upcoming performances at the Kennedy Center. For him, the live performance is at the core of what they do.

“[Rather than] explain why music is so important in our society, just come and listen,” he says. “We are not from Mars. We are normal people and want to present the music we love to everybody.”

Noseda will conduct the NSO in “The Artist Abroad: Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev/Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances” on Thursday, November 30 through Saturday, December 2, and then returns to the Kennedy Center next spring.

Check www.kennedy-center.org for more details about upcoming performances, including free NSO in Your Neighborhood concerts; the first in the series will be held at Union Station next April.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.