One of the most daring modulations of Mozart’s career occurs in the last movement of his miraculous Symphony no. 40 in G minor, K550. The orchestra begins the development section in a unison B flat major “Mannheim Rocket” that suddenly goes sour, flops around in wide-spaced, dissonant intervals that could work in a symphony written 100 years later, and finally deposits itself in a new A major dominant rocket upward to continue the journey forward.

Gianandrea Noseda and Nurit Bar-Josef
© Scott Suchman

In the pandemic era, this striking passage is a good test of whether a streamed concert has the resonance, verve and compelling interest of the live event. In the first time back for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, the moment leaps out under returning music director Gianandrea Noseda and the excellent sound design of recording engineer Charles Lawson of Washington’s WETA classical public radio station. The perfect resonance, with the note decay of the unison orchestra no shorter nor longer than it should be, arguably sounds better on the stream than live in person in the sometimes dodgy Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

The moment also validates the selection of the Mozart symphony, ordinarily considered something of an overdone warhorse, to anchor the orchestra’s first of four returning concerts from the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Alone among Mozart’s last symphonies, the G minor symphony also does not require trumpets or timpani, helping to ease the personnel and distancing requirements on stage.

It also bookended a work from an infinitely less-known composer of Mozart’s time that opened the concert, the Symphony no. 1 in G major by black French composer Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The straightforward three-movement symphony set the National Symphony on course to diversify its offerings in coming years under the new cultural requirements in America.

Gianandrea Noseda rehearses the National Symphony Orchestra
© Scott Suchman

Charming as ever, Noseda described the Bologne symphony in brief spoken remarks on the stream as “simple but not banal” and “full of freshness”. Ultimately the NSO and other Washington concert presenters are likely to explore Bologne’s many violin concerti and sonatas. The Chevalier, who was also a champion fencer, was known to play violin at Versailles, with Marie Antoinette believed likely to have accompanied him on the fortepiano.

Noseda had all four movements of the Mozart symphony well in hand. A 16-foot extension of the Concert Hall stage out into the audience area enabled very comfortable spacing for the conductor and the 31 musicians, with the woodwind and horn players tucked around plexiglass shields. As is typical for Noseda, the outer movements were a tick swifter than sometimes heard, and the violins sounded impressively both suave and declamatory throughout, with frequent camera focus on concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef. Principal clarinet Lin Ma was also a particular standout throughout the work.

The one place where pandemic restrictions did notably affect the concert was in the middle work of the program, the Valse triste by Jean Sibelius from his incidental music for the play Kuolema. Having less than the full string sections on stage robbed the music of some of its heft and pathos, although such a result is inevitable in some works while the pandemic still plays havoc with normal procedures. As an enticement back for its audience, the NSO is running this initial streaming concert free online for a month and then onto its paid Digital Stage+ web platform.

This performance was reviewed from the National Symphony Orchestra video stream