In the closing stretch of its European tour, the NSO takes flight


When I arrived in Cologne last week to meet up with the National Symphony Orchestra on the last leg of its European tour, everyone seemed primed for an intermission.

Eight days and seven shows into its first multi-city European tour since 2016, the NSO had already made stops in Barcelona, Zaragoza and Madrid (for two performances) in Spain and in Berlin, Nuremberg and Frankfurt in Germany. There hadn’t been a proper day off (i.e., without a show, travel or both) since back in Barcelona — an early pause strategically positioned to mitigate collective jet lag, but now as distant as a forgotten dream.

On the other side of this night’s appearance at the Kölner Philharmonie, a much-needed breather awaited. And with just three concerts left on the itinerary — in Cologne, Milan and Hamburg — the vibe on the shuttle bus from the hotel to the hall was a medley of anticipation, determination and muted sneezes. The NSO may be a powerful orchestra, but its musicians aren’t immune to germs.

Orchestras, it’s worth remembering, are made of people.

It’s so easy to think of orchestras as institutions — each one a local congress of instrumental posts passed down through generations of stewards whose ranks remain intentionally blurred, our focus fixed instead on the particular form of an era’s respective maestro. (This institutional quality is especially pronounced in cities such as Cologne, where orchestras — the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, for example — receive substantial public funding.)

In reality, an orchestra is about three buses worth of co-workers; the concert hall is a conspicuously spacious office; and the tour is nothing if not a daily grind — albeit a dazzling one.

There are 99 musicians total along for the ride — 81 of them permanent NSO players, the others substitutes under various degrees of contract. By day, the musicians speed-walk a little sightseeing on the way to hurried meals. They sneak naps or solo rehearsals into the hotel’s housekeeping hours. Many have spouses and kids and their respective sniffles in tow. Orchestras are just like us: They get jet-lagged and hangry and sick and tired. They lose their luggage and accidentally pack expired EpiPens. (Okay, that last one was just me.)

All of which makes the NSO’s sudden convergence into solid, familiar musical form onstage after stage in city after city feel something like a minor miracle. (Much like when my luggage rolled up the next day.) At each of the three concerts I attended in Europe, the NSO came off as one of the hardest-working orchestras in the biz, without ever making the music sound like a job.

The Kölner Philharmonie, part of the sizable campus of the Museum Ludwig, serves as the Gürzenich’s and the WDR’s subterranean home, its cavernous hall hidden below the unassuming brick expanse of the Heinrich-Böll-Platz. Whenever a concert is underway below, guards dot the plaza’s perimeter, waving pedestrians away from crossing, as the click of high heels and the rumble of wheelie luggage register quite clearly in the hall’s otherwise pristine acoustics.

The hardwood of the hall itself seems to swirl around its stage, a system of blue beams girding a circular canopy of bright lights and acoustic spires. The Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) looms large over this place, and the Philharmonie responds respectfully to the Dom’s unfathomable scale with an uncanny intimacy. Listeners are encircled in rich and richly present sound — and, woe to the jet-lagged, tucked into dangerously comfortable seats (designed by the German automaker Recaro).

The orchestra opened with three movements (the second, third and fourth) from Alban Berg’s six-part “Lyric Suite,” arranged for string orchestra by Berg in 1928 and performed by the NSO early last month at the Kennedy Center.

Whether it was the boxy hall itself or maestro Gianandrea Noseda’s discretion, in D.C. the suite’s sharper edges felt slightly dulled. But in Cologne, the unique penmanship of Berg’s dissonant love letter (to the similarly married Hanna Fuchs-Robettin) felt lush and extra inky. Ditto the insectile intensity of the “Allegro misterioso — Trio estatico,” which felt at times like a charged vapor. The closing “Adagio appassionato” highlighted Berg’s interest in harmonic width and Noseda’s search for unexpected depth.

Violinist Hilary Hahn took the stage to a warm embrace of applause to perform Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Violin Concerto” (also previewed in D.C. in early February). Noseda and Hahn have enjoyed what he calls a “fruitful cooperation” over the years, with the 44-year-old violinist making frequent appearances with the NSO, and demonstrating a beguiling alignment with the maestro’s detail-oriented priorities.

As it was in D.C., Hahn’s handling of the concerto, premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz, swung from agile and light to aggressive and crunchy. She matched its cinematic sweep with the aplomb of an action hero, her cadenzas flinging us into Korngold’s plush cushions of melodrama. Hahn took evident pleasure in its racing finale (“Allegro assai vivace”), especially its leaping closing minutes — made witty and piquant atop stately statements of horn.

Germans aren’t known for handing out standing ovations, but Hahn earned hers, as well as two encores. First she offered Carlos Simon’s “Shards of Light” a 3½-minute soliloquy for violin, its ivy climb ornamented here and there with pizzicato petals. Hahn’s way of digging into its fluttering melody felt hard-wired — Simon started sketching it for her two years ago and returned to complete it two weeks before the tour.

“Not too many composers are courageous enough to compose like that for solo violin,” Hahn told me later backstage. And she’s correct: “Shards” surrenders the temptation toward virtuosity for something closer to pure trust, and Hahn makes good on her end of the bargain. Simon was on hand to receive a warm, welcoming ovation.

She followed Simon’s sketch with the Loure movement from Bach’s third violin partita, played with what I could only describe as exquisite privacy — a confided secret that genuinely felt like something we hadn’t already known.

The program ended, as the next two would, with Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 5,” a work that has been in the orchestra’s suitcase for more than 80 years. The NSO has performed the Fifth some 92 times outside D.C. — on tours, residencies and one-offs stretching back through the tenures of Christoph Eschenbach, Mstislav Rostropovich, Howard Mitchell and Hans Kindler — raising the question of whether it’s a calling card or a stubborn habit.

In my ears, the symphony’s teeth only got sharper as the week wore on and the orchestra forged ahead — though the Philharmonie space did lend particular sparkle and peculiar shine to its timbral variety show.

And from the increasingly illegible lines in my notebook, you can tell I was starting to fade. (Critics are people, too!) If it hadn’t been for the evening’s second standing ovation and a full orchestra encore of Simon’s spiritually inspired “Meditations on Grace,” I might not have rallied for the frosty rounds of Kölsch getting slung backstage by the staff. Prost! (And, more important, gute nacht.)

After a day of long naps, longer walks, big servings of doner kebab and some satellite outings to nearby Bonn (where Beethoven was born), a visibly rejuvenated but still audibly sniffly NSO filed onto four buses and one charter flight to Milan.

The evening performance at Teatro alla Scala would mark a historic moment for the NSO, who had performed in Milan only once before, under Rostropovich at the Piazza del Duomo. It would also mark a homecoming for Noseda, who originally hails from Milan and whose family was well-represented in the hall’s plush red rows and boxes.

End of carousel

Thus, the instantly recognizable — dare I say iconic? — La Scala poster elegantly billing the orchestra’s appearance was ogled over and posed with by musicians like the surreal artifact that it already was. Elsewhere backstage, ships from the set of an ongoing production of “Simon Boccanegra” were temporarily ported on pallets as NSO crews wheeled in crates for a last-minute load-in. And all around, musicians (and nosy writers) explored the labyrinthine hall, its seemingly endless coil of stacked tiers and closed doors, its sudden outbursts of opulence hiding around the bend of every curving corridor.

The word on the bus was that La Scala was known to be a dry hall — good for opera, iffy for orchestras. But in a short rehearsal as well as an hour or so later, as bodies filled every seat in the place, all the way up to the nosebleeds, that anticipated dryness translated into a crispness and clarity that made the orchestra sound right at home.

A few weeks ago, when parts of this program were played in D.C., I’d mentioned how thoughtful a bookend Simon’s concerto for orchestra — titled “Wake Up!” — made for the Shostakovich, suggesting the composers shared “an ability to say two things at once, thread angst through merriment, smiles through tears.”

But in Milan, another bothness between the two composers emerged. As much contrast as there is between Simon’s endearingly genuine voice and Shostakovich’s wry sarcasm, an affinity exists between their adventurous orchestration — bristling percussion, slingshot strings, vertiginous climaxes and crashes. Simon’s concerto was especially vivid in Milan, its vaguely phonetic two-note salvo sounding an alarm that scarcely relented. At La Scala, the wit and sensitivity of each composer — separated by a century — felt vital and alive in conversation.

Equally supercharged was the evening’s centerpiece, Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4” performed by the Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho (one of three dates featuring him on this tour).

Though Cho channels nearly all his showmanship through his hands, he’s a fascinating pianist to watch — workmanlike and intense, but given to breezy, poetic explorations of the concerto’s most well-trodden stretches. He brought a jeweled softness to the central “Andante con moto” and galloping vigor to the closing “Rondo (Vivace),” beckoning the orchestra to match his sprightly energy. It was Beethoven with fresh batteries. The pianist reappeared for a soft-spoken encore of the slow movement of Beethoven’s eighth piano sonata — i.e., the “Pathétique.”

A post-show reception for Noseda and his wife, Lucia, in one of La Scala’s glimmering function halls made clear what a family affair this truly was. Among the attendees were (per my probably incomplete tally) his parents, his brother, his sister-in-law, one of his four nephews, a cousin, a godson, and a small, smiling crowd of friends, colleagues, surprise guests and well-wishers.

And those who didn’t know Noseda personally confirmed to me the rarity of such a warm welcome, let alone such a prolonged ovation. For a Monday night in Milan, it was somewhere between a big deal and a small triumph.

The next day, just before our initial descent into Hamburg, Noseda hopped on the plane’s public announcement system to thank his players for their tenacity, the staff and the crew for their hard work, and the kids for their good behavior. He wished them a strong show and safe travels home, and looked forward to their reunion in D.C. at the end of May — after Noseda leads two full cycles of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” tetralogy at Opernhaus Zurich (with a little “Carmen” thrown in for good measure). Conspicuously, he forgot to remind us to bring our seats upright and stow our tray tables.

From the artfully bulging upper windows of the towering Elbphilharmonie complex, the city of Hamburg stretches out in seeming miniature — a vast industrial expanse of cranes, drawbridges and the purple breath of distant smokestacks.

Meanwhile, seven minutes away on foot, a similar view awaited orchestra members who visited the world-famous Miniatur Wunderland, where the world’s largest model train makes dozens of stops in a tiny Hamburg, complete with trains, planes, automobiles and tiny Hamburgers going about their business.

It seemed appropriate on this last day of tour to survey the whole endeavor from on high, however one managed to do it.

And the Elbphilharmonie hall itself, opened to great acclaim in 2017, maintained this sense of epic scale. It’s an exquisite space, its tiers curling around as though carved by small rivers, its walls crannied with little acoustic nooks and pockets, encouraging a cool, full, vibrant sound — though not without its issues. In rehearsals of the Shostakovich, for instance, the basses were instructed to slice a bit harder and bow a bit more quickly — a move that almost surmounted the hall’s comparably stingy lows.

This final program of the tour was a repeat of the one heard at La Scala, but the music felt (once again) transformed by the space and recharged by the circumstances. The performance was not so much a sprint to the finish line as a final, forceful push into every detail and color.

And perhaps this is just a side effect of traveling with the group for six days, observing the mixing and mingling of entire sections usually separated by precise design, and eavesdropping on the natural interest and curiosity the players have in one another, but in Hamburg most of all, there was something personal at work among the personnel.

This was especially so in the Shostakovich, which truly found its moment in Hamburg: from the dialogue of Abel Pereira’s horn and Aaron Goldman’s lithe flute in its first movement; to the barbed sweetness of concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef’s solos in the second; to the silken lines of Lin Ma’s clarinet in the third; to the 256 rapid-fire piccolo notes of the finale (the ones I overheard Carole Bean fine-tuning in her hotel room the day before).

If the Fifth might fairly be seen as historically overplayed by this orchestra, as a tour-closer in Hamburg it felt deeply understood, and at times, freshly rediscovered — its contours crisp and clean, its humor fully indulged, its multitudes gleefully released.

Certainly, a tour like this is intended to introduce the National Symphony Orchestra to a world of new listeners, to stake a claim in the larger musical landscape, to declare itself present. But the true magic of joining this trip, even for just a few days, was watching the NSO attain a fresh perspective on itself — an overhead view, if you will.

“I always respected them, but I have to say I’ve really started to love them,” Noseda tells me over a quick bite on the final day. “Because I see them not only onstage as artists — I see them traveling together. I see them moving in groups. I see them searching for the restaurants. I see them being people.”


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