Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra celebrate proud legacies and a promising future

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The air outside the Kennedy Center on Thursday night hung heavy with rain clouds, but inside the Concert Hall, it was charged with a celebratory buzz.

On the program for Gianandrea Noseda’s final concerts of the spring season with the National Symphony Orchestra was a pairing of the Italian conductor’s countryman Nino Rota (a beguiling ballet suite adapted from the composer’s score for “La Strada”) and the Russian scientist and moonlighting musician Alexander Borodin (his energetic second symphony and the “Polovtsian Dances” from his posthumously completed 1890 opera “Prince Igor”).

But the occasion for all of this dancing was twofold. First was the announcement, made earlier on Thursday afternoon, that the NSO had extended Noseda’s contract as music director by an additional two seasons, through 2026-2027. It’s a show of institutional confidence in the conductor, now five seasons into his directorship, signaling that the sea change in energy he brought to the orchestra seems to be working. And that confidence was reflected by the audience in a boisterous breakout of “bravo! “-peppered applause when the news was announced from the stage by NSO board chair Ronald Abramson.

NSO extends music director Gianandrea Noseda’s tenure

The second component of the celebration took the form of a small stack of bright-blue gift boxes that materialized onstage alongside the podium after intermission. If you’ve ever wondered what awaits NSO players at the conclusion of several decades of dedicated service, the Tiffany paperweight and signed, framed photo of their fellow musicians is just one half of it. The other half was a warm standing ovation that took several minutes to settle.

Such was the spirited send-off that greeted this year’s batch of retiring NSO musicians — a slightly larger contingent and later celebration than usual because of delays caused by the pandemic. On Thursday, the orchestra offered fond farewells to seven of its longest-tenured musicians, five of whom were present, representing a combined 297 years of service: assistant principal percussionist Kenneth Harbison (44 years), assistant principal trumpet Steven Hendrickson (39 years) , contrabassoonist and bassoonist Lewis Lipnick (51 years), violinist George Marsh (42 years), violist Eric deWaardt (36 years), associate principal French horn Laurel Bennert Ohlson (42 years) and flutist and piccoloist Alice Kogan Weinreb (43 years).

Thus, Noseda seemed quite in the mood for a dance party — albeit his idea of ​​one. Rota’s dazzling suite was adapted some 12 years after his original score for longtime collaborator Federico Fellini’s 1954 film “La Strada,” and although it gleams with a cinematic sheen, Noseda coaxed alluring complexities from its seven short movements that revealed musical depths often obscured by the scrim of silver screen.

As one might expect from a film composer as prolific as Rota (with whom Fellini collaborated on nearly 70 films), the “La Strada” suite feels as visual as it does musical; and, recontextualized as a ballet, the arrangement of its movements — a sequence of jarring jump cuts — attains an arresting physicality.

The film tells the tale of Gelsomina, a young woman trapped in servitude to the brutish circus strongman Zampanò, who ends up killing the only light in her life — the Fool from the high wire — and plunging her into a fatal despair. (And you thought that paperweight was heavy!)

The music, however, is loose, light and often rapturous — its teetering opening circus themes played as though the orchestra were balanced atop a ball, its plummeting trombones serving pachydermal flourishes and its syncopated segues finding Noseda bouncing in place with his arms outstretched like a marionette.

But Rota’s suite also leaves room under its tent for tenderness and deeply saturated cinematic color. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef’s playing was especially beautiful in its aching solo stretches, her articulations brimming with character, as well as the suite’s thrilling closing climb.

Toasting to classical music under the stars

The program’s second half focused on Borodin, whose music landed in most American ears through Robert Wright and George Forrest’s 1953 musical (and subsequent 1955 film) “Kismet.” Along with César Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin was a member of “The Five” — a group of 19th-century Russian composers who sought to showcase and foreground Russian musical traditions rather than obscure them beneath the veneer of Western classicism. As such, the Symphony No. 2 in B minor, completed in 1875 and premiered in 1877, is crackling with heroic swagger and brimming with virile rhythmic gusto.

And although it certainly does tap a folkloric vein, it also reveals Borodin as a bit of a futurist, his themes fragmenting and multiplying in ways that seem defiant — progressive, even. While Borodin’s primary occupation as a chemist provides only anecdotal explanation for his tendency toward effervescent atomization, the symphony packed more punch than I expected.

Noseda was a big part of this microscopic investigation of Borodin’s textures, which may have been more evident to the audience through the far more familiar terrain of the “Polovtsian Dances” from the composer’s posthumously completed 1890 opera, “Prince Igor.” The Dances compress a tight pack of varied moods and emotions — almost all of them smuggled through the last century into various corners of culture.

The “Gliding Dance of the Maidens,” for instance, is a melody that has trickled from one generation to the next. You might know its tune from the suite itself, or from its transformation (via “Kismet”) into the now-standard love song “Stranger in Paradise,” or from the “Saru-Mon’s Castle” level of “Ape Escape 3.” (Given another century, Borodin could have been one of our great video game composers.)

And if it seemed as though the high note of the “Polovtsian Dances” was a strange one to go out on for Noseda’s final show of the season, by its rousing finale its place on the program made perfect sense. With a cobra-shaped stripe of sweat tracing his spine, Noseda’s body snapped like a whip, his arms summoning the orchestra to a whirling climax. He’s got a knack for making old favorites sound not just new, but renewed.

It may be why they’re so keen to keep him around — and why I find myself, here on the brink of summer, already ready for fall.

Noseda conducts Rota & Borodin repeats Friday, June 3, and Saturday, June 4, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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