Celebrating 100 Years Of Bernstein With Gianandrea Noseda

Nov 27, 2017
Originally published on November 27, 2017 6:43 am

It is an important moment in the life of a symphony orchestra when a new conductor is selected — not just to lead the orchestra, but to create the programs, hire the artists and more. In short, to be the music director.

In Washington, D.C., the choice was made with astonishing harmony.

A search committee composed of board members and musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra agreed unanimously on their pick: 53-year-old Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who comes to the job just as the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts is beginning a yearlong celebration for the centennial birthday of one of Noseda's conducting heroes: Leonard Bernstein.

The life of a successful conductor is nomadic, and Noseda's is no exception. In addition to his position in Washington, he is music director of the Teatro Regio di Torino Opera in Turin, Italy; artisti c director of the Stresa Festival, also in Italy; and, as if that's not enough, a regular guest conductor for major symphony orchestras in the U.S., Europe and Israel.

He began his professional life not as a conductor, but a pianist. "I didn't have this vision that I would become a conductor," Noseda recalls. "But I started to look at these scores and I was fascinated."

At age 27 he began conducting and, as it turned out, he was a natural. Noseda was quickly able to master the technique.

"When you conduct, you don't produce the music yourself," he says. "You have to commit other people, to convince them to react to your gestures."

Noseda has been called a radical conductor. He has a reputation for making audiences see old favorites with new eyes. Take, for example, his approach to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

"You open the first page, and the first impression is, 'Oh, I know it,'" he says. "That is what I try to avoid. I try to think, 'I don't know this music.' ... If you start to ask questions, everything starts to sound new in your inner ear. The most difficult thing is to try to forget what is in your memory and re-approach. If this piece doesn't surprise me, how can I surprise the audience?"

But, when it came to the NSO's 2017 Season Opening Gala, Noseda's debut as its new music director, Beethoven was nowhere to be found on the program. Instead, it was all Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein, the wildly prolific composer of the 20th century, was also among the most popular conductors of his era. Today, it is his music that is remembered --everything from West Side Story, On the Town and Candide to symphonies, ballets and Mass — a mammoth symphonic and choral work composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971.

Jamie Bernstein, the composer's oldest daughter, tells me the hilarious backstory of how the piece was commissioned. It seems that Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy first asked Bernstein to run the Kennedy Center.

"And my father was not able to say no to Jacqueline Kennedy," Jamie says. "So he said, 'Oh I'm so honored, thank you very much.' And then he hung up the phone and went to my mother and said, 'Oh my God, what have I done? I can't run the Kennedy Center.'" It was left to Mrs. Bernstein to get him out of it, calling Mrs. Kennedy back with the suggestion that maybe it would be better for her husband to compose a piece for the opening instead.

In its time, Bernstein's Mass was extremely controversial. The piece included not just an orchestra and three choruses bumping up against each other, but a rock band, a blues band and a brass band, reflecting the conflicts going on in the country at the time. And then there was the mass itself, an essentially theatrical work.

"It's an opera. It's an oratorio," Noseda says. "It's a piece of the deepest spirituality."

Some people in the church loved it. Others were shocked and had it shut down. The FBI and aides to President Nixon warned that Bernstein had put a secret message in Mass to insult the president.

"It finally turned out that what they were worried about was the line in the standard Catholic liturgy, Dona nobis pacem — 'Give us peace,'" Jamie Bernstein says. Her father's ultimate vindication came in 2000, five years after his death, when Pope John Paul II requested a production of Mass at the Vatican.

Mass was composed during the Vietnam War, a time of huge protests, generational revolt, the sexual revolution and the battles for civil rights and women's rights. But, as Noseda believes, the "upheavals of the '60s and '70s set the stage for what is going on now."

"How connected the eras are," says the maestro, "it resonates so appropriately that it's almost eerie."

Indeed, as Noseda observes, so does much of Bernstein's work. Noseda concluded his opening program debut last month with the symphonic dances from West Side Story.

"West Side Story is a masterpiece, period," Noseda says. "[The] rhythmic patterns are incredible. But what I love most are the quiet moments of 'Somewhere.' I think they are the lyrical aspect, and the tenderness."

From Mass to West Side Story, Noseda sees Berstein's work as capturing the beat of the modern heart.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, in a lot of symphony orchestras, the conductor does a lot more than conduct. This person creates programs, hires artists. Really, they're the music director. So it's pretty remarkable that Washington, D.C.'s new conductor was chosen with such harmony. A search committee unanimously picked 53-year-old Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He comes to the job just as the Kennedy Center is celebrating the birthday centennial of one of his conducting heroes, Leonard Bernstein. NPR legal affairs correspondent and resident music enthusiast Nina Totenberg has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The life of a successful conductor is nomadic. And Noseda's is no exception. In addition to his position here in Washington, he's music director of the Teatro Regio opera in Turin, Italy, artistic director of the Stresa summer festival, also in Italy. And as if that's not enough, he's also a regular guest conductor for major symphony orchestras in the U.S., Europe and Israel. Noseda began his professional life not as a conductor but a pianist.

GIANANDREA NOSEDA: I didn't have this vision I would become a conductor. But I started to look at the scores. I was fascinated.

TOTENBERG: At age 27, he began conducting and found it was different.

NOSEDA: When you conduct, you don't produce the music yourself. You have to commit other people, to convince them to react to your gestures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: It turned out he was a natural.

NOSEDA: The technique of conducting is pretty easy. But to be a conductor takes a life.

TOTENBERG: Noseda has been called a radical conductor. He has a reputation for making audiences see old favorites with new eyes. Take Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")

NOSEDA: You open the first page. And the first impression is, oh, I know it. That is what I try to avoid. I try to think I don't know this music. I go back to the basics - why he composed sol, sol, sol, mi.

TOTENBERG: Dah, dah, dah, dah.

NOSEDA: Yeah. That one. You're correct.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")

TOTENBERG: Why, he asks, did Beethoven mark his notes this way on the score? How long is the pause, the rest?

NOSEDA: If you start to ask questions, everything starts to sound new in your ears, in your inner ear. The most difficult thing is to try to forget what is in your memory, to reapproach. If this piece doesn't surprise me - how I can surprise the audience.

TOTENBERG: After all, he muses, what was the audience's reaction at the very first performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony?

NOSEDA: Probably, they thought, oh, this man is mad. What is that? It's not even a melody. That is nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5 IN C MINOR")

TOTENBERG: Beethoven was nowhere to be found on the NSO's opening program. Instead, it was all Bernstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: Leonard Bernstein, the wildly prolific composer of the 20th century. Though Bernstein was among the most popular conductors of his era, today, it is his music that is remembered - everything from "West Side Story" to "On The Town," "Candide," symphonies, ballets and "MASS," a mammoth symphonic and choral work composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

YO-YO MA: (Playing cello).

TOTENBERG: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Meditation from Bernstein's "MASS" at the NSO opening concert. Jamie Bernstein, the composer's oldest daughter, tells the hilarious back story of how the piece was commissioned. It seems that Mrs. Kennedy first asked Bernstein to run the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

JAMIE BERNSTEIN: And my father was not able to say no to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. So he said, oh, I'm so honored. Thank you very much. I would love to. And then he hung up the phone and went to my mother and said, oh, my God, what have I done? I can't run the Kennedy Center.

TOTENBERG: And so it was left to Mrs. Bernstein to get him out of it by calling Mrs. Kennedy back with a suggestion that maybe it would be better for Lenny to compose a piece for the opening. In its time, Bernstein's "MASS" was extremely controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (As character, vocalizing).

TOTENBERG: The piece included not just an orchestra and three choruses bumping up against each other but a rock band, a blues band and a brass band, reflecting the conflicts going on in the country at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As character, singing) If I could, I'd confess good and loud, nice and slow.

TOTENBERG: And then there was the mass itself, an essentially theatrical work.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Celebrant) In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

NOSEDA: It's an opera. It's an auditorium. It's a mass. But what it is is a piece of the deepest possible spirituality.

TOTENBERG: Some in the church loved it. Others were shocked and had it shut down. The FBI and aides to President Nixon warned that Bernstein had put a secret message in the mass to insult the president.

BERNSTEIN: It finally turned out that what they were worried about was the line - the standard line in the Catholic liturgy - dona nobis pacem.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Dona nobis pacem.

BERNSTEIN: Give us peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "MASS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Pacem.

TOTENBERG: Bernstein's ultimate vindication came in 2000, five years after his death, when Pope John Paul II requested a production of "MASS" at the Vatican. The piece was composed during the Vietnam War at a time of huge protests, generational revolt - the battle for civil rights and women's rights.

NOSEDA: Everything was very tempestoso, like a storm.

TOTENBERG: The upheavals of the 1960s really set the stage for what is going on now. It resonates so appropriately that it's almost eerie.

Indeed, Maestro Noseda sees much of Bernstein's work as capturing the beat of the modern heart. Noseda concluded his opening program with the "Symphonic Dances From West Side Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BERNSTEIN'S "SYMPHONIC DANCES FROM WEST SIDE STORY")

NOSEDA: "West Side Story" is a masterpiece, period. The rhythmical patterns are so incredible - the mambo or the fugue with the blues scale. But what I love most are the quiet moments of "Somewhere," "Maria." I think they're the lyrical aspect and the tenderness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: That's the new musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianadrea Noseda, reflecting on the work of Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra will be marking the centennial of the late composer's birth throughout the coming year. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.