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Prokofiev’s 'Romeo and Juliet'

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

On Thursday evening, November 3, 2016, the National Symphony Orchestra essayed Sergei Prokofiev’s great ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center. It did so under the direction of Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who will assume his full duties as replacement for NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach in the fall of 2017.

On the evening’s evidence, this is good news for Washington, D.C. Noseda galvanized the NSO to give a thoroughly compelling performance of this masterpiece. It was a concert performance of the (almost) complete ballet music, but I am tempted to say that, even without dancers, we saw a ballet nevertheless. It is astonishing to realize that Prokofiev’s score was turned down by the Bolshoi in 1935 as “unsuitable for dancing.” Since it contains waltzes, minuets, gavottes, and tarantellas, what’s not to dance to? I have difficulty remaining still in my seat when I listen to it. The music demands movement. Noseda did not resist the impulse. He conducts with more than his baton; his body is his baton. He moved expressively with the music in a balletic way that was neither gratuitous nor histrionic (though his few deep knee bends startled). He clearly communicated. The NSO responded with glorious playing. I think that Romeo and Juliet was not the only love story transpiring on stage.

Noseda’s strong emotional commitment did not compromise orchestral discipline (which is what I sometimes thought was occasionally the problem with the conducting of Mstislav Rostropovich, to whose memory the performance was dedicated). To extend the ballet analogy, the players were on their toes the entire time. They needed to be as Prokofiev’s score has frequent, often abrupt changes of rhythm and pace. To break with the ballet analogy, they turned on a dime. It was a breathtaking level of execution (though there were a few minor flubs, which is to be expected in an opening night performance of a score this demanding, but not once in the many opening or closing cues). The discipline of the playing added to the drama and never subverted the warmth. In other words, technical excellence was never the point.

Thus one was able to appreciate the broad range of expression Noseda and the NSO players captured in the mercurial character of this music. The big moments, such as Tybalt and Mercutio’s fight, Romeo’s reaction to Mercutio’s death (great staccato chords hammered home), the killing of Tybalt, and Romeo’s exile by the Prince, were shockingly visceral and harrowing in their impact. The gentle and gloriously lyrical love music, including the “parting is such sweet sorrow” moment at the end of Act I, the Act II marriage music, and the Act III scene in Juliet’s chamber, were delivered with delicacy and refinement. The music shimmered in all the right places. The Juliet funeral music at the opening of Act IV was a lesson in how searingly sorrowful pianissimo, tremolo string playing can be when done as well as the NSO violins did it.

One hardly knows where to begin in complementing the other members and sections of the orchestra. I never knew how good the tuba music was in depicting Juliet’s growing stupor under the influence of the sleeping potion until I heard it tonight. Kudos to Stephen Dumaine. Perhaps that’s unfair, because I would have to single out so many other individuals. The flute is Juliet’s instrument, and Aaron Goldman played it so well in, so to speak, singing her song. But what of the rest of the brass, the clarinets, the oboes, the bassoons, the saxophone – to say nothing of the outstanding timpani? They were all generally excellent. The undergirding provided by the cellos and double basses was formidable, as were the violas when given their chance to sing.

Anyone who has the faintest appreciation for one of the greatest ballet scores of the 20th century, or who may be curious as to what Maestro Noseda is bringing to our fair city, should not tarry seeing one of the remaining performances.

Romeo and Juliet repeat on Friday and Saturday nights, November 4 and 5. I want to go again.

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