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Noseda Brings the Casella

available at Amazon
A. Casella, Orchestral Works, Vol. 4, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda
(Chandos, 2015)

available at Amazon
Prokofiev, Complete Works for Violin, J. Ehnes, BBC Philharmonic, G. Noseda
(Chandos, 2013)
Italian pianist and composer Alfred Casella has some connections to Washington, especially through the patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the Library of Congress. On a personal level, your moderator studied piano in graduate school with one of Casella's students, an Italian grande dame who studied with him in Rome. She told me so many wonderful stories about Casella, how he took such care of his students, something that this teacher of mine always emulated, that I felt like I knew him. (His association with Mussolini never came up.) So it was somewhat surprising that the National Symphony Orchestra had never played any of Casella's music until last night, when guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda led a performance of the composer's Elegia eroica, op. 29, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Any guest conductor this season and next might be a contender to replace Christoph Eschenbach in two years. Noseda's debut with the NSO, in 2011, did not endear me to him. His manner at the podium was more controlled, less wild, this time around, and the results, especially in the Casella piece, were encouraging. More than an "elegy," as the title implies, the work opens as a sort of howl of grief, the plodding tempo evoking a noisy funeral procession. With the vast orchestration swamping the stage with sound for much of the opening part of the piece, individual colors of orchestration came out in later parts: an extended sotto voce passage for strings, bubbling with dissonances; striking solos or duets for bassoon, viola with bass clarinet, oboe with oscillating flutes; a music box section for celesta, harp, and flute. It was a moving experience to hear this piece, written in the midst of World War I and dedicated to "the memory of a soldier killed in war," especially in close conjunction with the celebration of Veterans Day.

Noseda's cycle of Casella's orchestral works, with the BBC Philharmonic, is an excellent way to get to know this composer better. Noseda and this evening's soloist, Canadian violinist James Ehnes, have also recorded the Prokofiev violin concertos, and here Ehnes gave a wry, understated rendition of the second concerto (G minor, op. 63). The piece opens with the violin by itself, and throughout Ehnes was sensational in the lyrical parts of the piece. Harmonically, Prokofiev takes a turn backward towards a more Romantic palette in this piece, composed as he was preparing for repatriation to the Soviet Union. The lovely second theme of that opening movement has a Hollywood sweetness, and any music that might give the feel of Prokofiev grotesquerie is soft-pedaled. Ehnes gave the second movement every ray of sunlight he could muster, glowing on its ardent melodies, especially transparent high on the E string. With movements that felt so dance-like in the second movement, like the variations at the climax of a ballet, it was a reminder that Prokofiev was also working on the score of Romeo and Juliet around the same time. Hints of sardonic humor came through in the finale, with Ehnes so technically assured, especially in the rather flippant theme with castanets.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Restrained and urbane, Noseda leads NSO in strong Rachmaninoff (Washington Post, November 13)
I did not need to hear another performance of Rachmaninoff's second symphony, last conducted by Iván Fischer in 2008 and by Leonard Slatkin in 2004. Noseda reseated the strings for this concert, putting the first and second violins together, which facilitated a soaring mass violin sound. Noseda did not draw out the tempos for the most part, avoiding soaking everything in corn syrup rubato. The second movement was fast, having movement without being weighted down, although in both the first movements, I still wished for some significant excisions from the score. The third movement was particularly soporific, almost from the start and ending up overblown at its climax, while the finale, perhaps to compensate, was lively and full of spastic energy. It was here that some of the sense of beat micromanagement returned to Noseda's sometimes frantic gestures, so that in some of the accelerando passages, it was hard for me to see exactly where he was going. Judging by occasional confusion heard from the musicians, it was difficult for them, too.

This concert repeats on Saturday evening.

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