Tonight, celebrating what would have been Mstislav ‘Slava’ Rostropovich’s 90th birthday (music director of the NSO from 1977 until 1994), came Gianandrea Noseda in the first of two eagerly-anticipated appearances this season. The Kennedy Center’s music director designate, he officially takes office in the fall of 2017. Noseda was assured of Washington’s warmest welcome; in contrast to the sadly flagging audiences so far this season, there was hardly a spare seat tonight. And though one deplores the fickleness of tastes, as far as the city’s enthusiasm for their incoming director, long may this last. And, after tonight’s passionate and exciting performance, it augurs well, very well indeed for the next phase of the NSO’s development.

Gianandrea Noseda © Ramella & Giannese | Fondazione Teatro Regio di Torino
Gianandrea Noseda
© Ramella & Giannese | Fondazione Teatro Regio di Torino

The work chosen to honor ‘Slava’ was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Musing on why it was chosen, Noseda joked that he, Shakespeare and Prokofiev all shared a birthday (only different years); it was also a tribute to Slava’s artistic relationship with Prokofiev – the concert suites from Romeo and Juliet had been, indeed, among his earliest recordings with the NSO. For me, a devoted fan of the ballet, listening to the score alone without the supplement of dance was a novel experience, but one that revealed why such a work may be considered a truly great rendition of Shakespeare.

Noseda declared that he wished to touch his audience's “minds and hearts”, and his identification with the work was patently genuine. Shakespeare set the play in Verona with the stereotypical conventions of Mediterranean passion in mind; there was a sense in which Noseda was comfortable with the dramatic expressions of his own emotions when conducting. He knelt down to coax the softest pianissimo imaginable – the sanctity of Juliet's vows at Friar Laurence’s – then swept the orchestra up into the lively merry-making of the town. He was importunate in urging the strings to untrammelled passion.

Best of all, in a work where violence is never far below the surface, Noseda used his baton like a weapon – catching the spirit of that initial street-brawl, where boyish antics spill over into violence (it was as if he was conducting a fight in the orchestra), the crashing power of dissonances, showing tribes between whom there can be no earthly reconciliation, and most vividly, the repeated, fierce lashing of his baton denoting not only Romeo’s killing of Tybalt, but, perhaps even more brutally, Romeo’s self-lacerating realization that he has killed his bride’s cousin.

The only pity about the performance – and it truly was a pity – was the vast overhead screen behind the orchestra, covering the choir balcony. On this screen, courtesy of Alan Paul, Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Company, appeared an eclectic series of quotations, descriptions of scenes (not matching the titles exactly), illustrations (nondescript black-and-white prints, and Victorian coloured pictures, of the most luridly sentimental kind – as unShakespearean as you might imagine), and conveniently, for what became of our presumed ignorance, in big writing, END OF ACT ONE (which appeared before the end of Act I). Sometimes, the electronic display disappeared altogether, and we weren’t even alerted to the end of Act II (we’d never have guessed by the spine-tingling fabulous orchestral peroration over which Noseda so dramatically provided).

It felt cheap and incoherent, but I also had a problem with the fact of a visual at all. Are we never to get relief from our visually-saturated age? Were we not trusted to listen and to imagine? It was not, of course, a discreet opt-out screen. There might have been a case for a small screen indicating the titles of the movements, though that hardly seems necessary. I hope Noseda shrugged and just got on with it. Despite all such distractions, one imagines Noseda and the NSO will be a fruitful partnership, and that there will be much to anticipate.