Review: The National Symphony Spotlights Forward Thinkers

The National Symphony Orchestra, in the days leading to its Carnegie Hall appearance on Tuesday, launched a charm offensive in the press.

This ensemble from Washington revealed that its music director, Gianandrea Noseda, had been anonymously lending seven Italian-made violins and one viola, reportedly collectively valued at some $5 million, to players in the orchestra. Until very recently, the musicians did not know who their benefactor was until — ta-da! — Noseda stepped forward.

While heartwarming, this revelation says nothing of the orchestra’s actual sound. That still depends on the performance it delivers — and on Tuesday, it came through. In a program of works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky and the underperformed American George Walker, the National Symphony and Noseda highlighted three inventive, forward-looking composers with Romantic roots.

In 1996, Walker became the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music; he died in 2018 at age 96. He had tried to begin his career as a concert pianist, but, stymied by the lack of opportunities for Black classical instrumentalists, turned his ambitions to a career split between academia and composing.

The National Symphony has been recording a cycle of Walker’s five brief Sinfonias, with the last scheduled to be released this fall. At Carnegie, the group performed his fourth, “Strands,” written in 2012, which subtly weaves in two spirituals, “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Walker employs astringent, rigorous modernism in an orchestral palette that brings to mind the grand sweep of Bruckner. This is music that deserves wider hearing.

Daniil Trifonov, the Russian-born pianist who has made his home in New York, joined for Prokofiev’s devilishly virtuosic Second Piano Concerto with brilliant panache. He often hunched over his instrument in ruminative concentration, his long curtain of hair nearly brushing the keys. But when it was time to unleash his full power — in the driving propulsion of the second movement Scherzo, for example — Trifonov made it clear that he was the one leading the orchestra, drawing out all of Prokofiev’s prickly tonalities and percussive rhythms. While the orchestra couldn’t quite match Trifonov’s hairpin turns of attack, they were shoulder to shoulder with him in their mood and color.

As an encore, Trifonov played more Prokofiev: the Gavotte from his “Three Pieces From ‘Cinderella,’” based on his 1940s ballet. Here again, Trifonov underscored all of Prokofiev’s dazzling, capricious energy.

Many conductors choose a pungent flavor for Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” written for the 1910 season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Noseda instead led his Washington players into a gauzy, gossamer-spun dreamland of a Russian folk tale. While there were moments of piquancy and verve in the winds and brasses, the strings tamped out little flashes of fire and spark in favor of a plusher, more rounded sound. Eventually, though, Noseda dissipated that shroud of glistening sweetness, inviting the low brass and percussion to emerge in full force.

The orchestra may see those Noseda-owned instruments as a kind of secret sauce, but on Tuesday it was the total flavor — a mix of honey and heat — that was truly satisfying.

National Symphony Orchestra

Performed on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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