Sunday, February 10, 2013


Severance Hall
February 9

Italian by birth, with a flair for the Russian repertoire.

Like everybody else, conductors run hot and cold. Making his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night, Gianandrea Noseda showed how to put those contrasting approaches to very good use in a colorful program of Rachmaninoff, Rota and Prokofiev.

Noseda, 48, has one of the more impressive resumes among visiting maestros this season. Born in Milan, he is currently music director of the Teatro Regio opera house in Turin and holds guest conductor posts with the Israel Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony. He is a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with a discography of more than 35 recordings ranging from Beethoven to Bartók. To judge from his performance on Saturday, the Italian repertoire is in his blood and the Russian repertoire an acquired passion, deeply felt on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Which made the opening piece a perfect choice: Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, a seldom-heard symphonic poem that Noseda is also performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (earlier this month) and Filarmonica della Scala (in Milan next month). A florid, tumultuous work inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous painting, the piece is a vividly descriptive narrative of a visit to the island that incorporates the Dies Irae chant from the Catholic funeral Mass.

Noseda did more than bring the piece to life. He set it on fire, starting softly and building with convincing authority to great heaving swells of emotion, music to make the blood race and the heart pound. The danger in this interpretation lies in being overly melodramatic, and certainly there were passages in that vein. But then, one could say that about a lot of the Russian repertoire. And Noseda has a fine sensitivity for the conflicting elements in the score – shimmering strings on top, dark undercurrents in the cellos and bass running underneath. There were moments when the divergent high and low ends of the sound seemed almost to be at war with each other, creating an unsettling but brilliant tension. It was a powerful, memorable reading, particularly for a non-piano Rachmaninoff piece.

There are not many concertos written for trombone, which was probably reason enough to put one by Nino Rota on the program. Best-known as a film composer – he wrote the signature music for Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series, and many Fellini films – Rota gets regular play in Europe, but not much here; this was the first time the Cleveland Orchestra performed his 1966 Trombone Concerto. The music is not terribly complex, especially sandwiched between two towering Russian works. The soloist, however, was first-rate. Massimo La Rosa, the orchestra’s regular principal trombonist, showed impressive command of his instrument in fashioning clear, beautifully rounded tones. And Noseda showed his opera background with lively orchestral accompaniment that buoyed but never drowned out the soloist, a difficult balance to strike in any circumstance.

Given his overheated treatment of Rachmaninoff, one might have expected Noseda to take the same approach in the concluding piece, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6. But he did exactly the opposite, giving it a cool, cerebral burnish that reinforced the principal theme of the work – a celebration of the end of the World War II tempered by a profound realization of the bloody price of victory. Even the echoes of battle horns and clashing armies were kept in controlled restraint, with the percussion as sharp as gunshots and the passages of loss and regret never becoming maudlin. The clarity of the piano lines offered another reminder of Noseda’s fine sense of balance, and his deft handling of the fast-paced third movement was dazzling, featuring virtuoso work from the violins.

Noseda is a generous conductor, acknowledging the orchestra before he takes his own bows. In fact, after ending the Prokofiev symphony with an electric crackle, he made almost every player stand for extra applause – not just the percussionists, as is typical with Prokofiev or Shostakovich. The accolades were well-deserved. But Noseda was the star of the performance, with his masterful command of the material, thoughtful and versatile approaches, and ability to turn what could have been a pro forma program into something special.

For more on Gianandrea Noseda:

For more on Nino Rota’s film scores:

Noseda photo by Ramella & Giannese

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