Noseda and the NSO strike the perfect balance with Beethoven and Still

On Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra continued its “Beethoven & American Masters” collection with a fantastic balancing act.

Many installments of the collection to date have paired a chunky Beethoven symphony with a smaller companion “Sinfonia” by George Walker and stuffed in the the rest of the program with a exactly portioned Beethoven gap-filler. On Saturday, Beethoven’s substantial sixth symphony — the “Pastoral” — was counterbalanced by a contemporary marvel by one other American grasp, “Symphony No. 2 in G minor, ‘Song of a New Race,’” by William Grant Still.

Still’s second symphonic swing, one in every of 5 from “Dean of African-American Composers,” stays a relative rarity on applications. Premiered in 1937 by the Philadelphia Orchestra below the composer’s early supporter Leopold Stokowski, Still’s symphony represents a technical and narrative step ahead from his first symphony of 1930, the “Afro-American Symphony.”

That first symphony sprang from a very fertile interval in Still’s profession. He was turning away from the modernist affect of Edgar Varèse (with whom he studied in the mid-’20s), embracing Black folks traditions in addition to exploring “the Africa of my imagination.”

“An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore and influenced by his contact with American civilization,” he wrote in a letter to conductor George Barrère, who would lead a 1930 efficiency of his symphonic poem, “Africa.” “He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.”

This radiant ultimate illuminates “Song of a New Race,” through which Still appears to mix all of his multitudes and include them in what may very well be mistaken for a standard symphony. “The form is the same, the language is new,” suggested maestro Gianandrea Noseda at the program’s outset.

Still endeavored with this work to color a portrait of “the American colored man of today” as “a totally new individual produced through the fusion of White, Indian and Negro bloods” — a transposition of his household’s personal mixture of African American, Native American, Scotch, Irish and Spanish heritage.

On paper in 2023, this well-meaning melting pot imaginative and prescient would possibly strike modern audiences as cancel fodder: naive at greatest or [hits italic button] cultural erasure at worst.

But in follow, Still’s second symphony seems like something however a capitulation. Symphonic kind is merely the vessel for his sui generis, proto-postmodernist fashion — a mix formed by modernism, shaded by neoclassicism, however grown in the daylight of spirituals, jazz, blues and Black folks traditions.

A pulse of vibraphone and a wash of sunshine, silky strings opened the first motion, which discovered full of life dialogues breaking out between violins and cellos. Clarinets and flutes climbed like vines up rungs of strummed harp. Noseda introduced fabulous dimension to the strings, which heaved like gusts of wind over a passage of staccato flutes. A darting piccolo fluttered over quizzical oboes and clarinets. A theme rising in the brass introduced the entire orchestra to a bracing climax.

In this and each motion thereafter, Still’s vibe swings freely between elegant cosmopolitanism and intimate colloquialism. From the wryly wonky horns, lilting flutes and rag-adjacent flashes of splash cymbal in the third motion, to the heartbreaker horns and luminescent strings of the finale, Still’s second is a stunningly stunning work — a symphony that, in a greater world, we’d be sick of listening to by now.

Such is the threat for that the majority well-pastured of warhorses, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major,” or the “Pastoral.”

Seldom do we discover Beethoven so explicitly getting with a given program as we do in No. 6: The “Pastoral” is a panorama, a nature stroll, a candy and prolonged reminiscence of the countryside of his boyhood. Little is left to your creativeness; the whole lot is left to his.

Another curveball of the “Pastoral” is its 5 actions, the final three of which — depicting a rustic dance, a storm and a post-storm celebration — are basically smooshed into one rousing come-around. (A transfer he pulls in the concurrently composed Fifth.)

I’d like to let you know all about the first motion — “Awakening of happy feelings upon arriving in the country” — with its delicate theme carried like a dandelion seed atop the strings, the oboes, the flutes and bassoons. Alas, a pair of impolite chuckleheads immediately behind me spent most of the motion whispering to one another and laughing. That is, till I circled very slowly (ever see “The Exorcist”?) and dealt them a dying stare that mentioned “I’m ready to go viral. Are you?” That did the trick.

Perhaps it was this intrusion of human nature that made the second motion’s retreat to the brook’s edge in the second motion (“Scene by the brook: Andante molto mosso”) so comparably serene. There have been instances throughout this efficiency, like the first third of this motion, that Noseda’s tendency towards softness flew precariously low — its delicacy too firmly enforced.

But simply as simply, he’d enable contemporary momentum to develop from little wellsprings of strings or outbursts of woodwinds. I discuss usually about the alluring naturalism of Noseda’s conducting — and on Saturday it was in full bloom.

My tormentors would have been welcome to giggle by means of the third motion — a “merry assembly of country folk” that Noseda stoked with a tempo that felt a contact extra allegro that standard. Sprightly strings and cool flutes traced the theme with ease and élan till the storm of the fourth motion insinuated itself and burst open with a blast. Even if my sneakers weren’t moist from the wet stroll over, I’d have felt sufficiently windblown by Noseda’s conjuring of this tumultuous penultimate motion. Big props go to the brass and percussion, whose fortes discovered their manner into my rib cage.

The storm was fantastically winnowed by flutes and clarinets into the “Shepherd’s Song” of the last motion, the all-clear warmly signaled by English horn, the clouds parted by the cellos, and concertmaster Nurit-Bar Josef (phenomenally expressive the total night) slicing by means of like a sunbeam.

If there’s a trick to creating this well-trodden symphony sound contemporary, I believe it’s at the coronary heart of Noseda’s method: hold it easy, let it do its factor, have a tendency its backyard. Like a brand new day, it solely requires we awaken to it.

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