Gianandrea Noseda fine-tunes the NSO with stash of rare instruments

The National Symphony Orchestra music director just revealed that he’s been loaning personal treasures to create his ideal sound

The National Symphony Orchestra music director just revealed that he’s been loaning personal treasures to create his ideal sound. Have a listen. (Video: Joy Yi, Sean Carter, Jayne Orenstein, Michael Andor Brodeur/The Washington Post)

There’s a secret to the sound of the National Symphony Orchestra.

I’d been trying to figure it out for three years, and I kept coming back to the strings, nearly tapping out my supply of reasonable adjectives to describe the special sauce at work across the NSO string section. I’ve called them “pining” and “shining,” “deep” and “shimmering,” and “gorgeously sculpted” by NSO music director Gianandrea Noseda.

A hint hid in plain sight, in the fine print of the programs: “Select musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra play instruments provided by the Pro-Canale Foundation through the Tarisio Trust.”

But what next to nobody knew until now — including NSO players — was who lent the orchestra this low-key treasure trove of fine antique instruments. Take a bow, maestro.

Since 2011, Noseda, 58, has quietly amassed an impressive collection of string instruments, and since 2019, he’s been covertly feeding those instruments into the orchestra. Currently, eight of Noseda’s secret stash are in the hands of NSO players – seven violins and one viola.

Noseda’s personal investment in the instruments — collectively valued at $5 million — is less the indulgence of a collector than the intervention of an artist. Though the instruments account for a fraction of the string section, and while the average ear might not register their individual timbral nuances and tonal hues, the net effect, to Noseda, is a closer connection between his players and the music.

“At the beginning, I thought that it was better to keep it in an anonymous element,” Noseda said recently in a Zoom interview from London, where he was conducting a trio of programs with the London Symphony Orchestra. “I didn’t want it to appear that this is ‘something about Gianandrea.’ It’s more connected with a general idea of sound, a general idea of motivation.”

It was this impulse to rally the troops that ultimately changed Noseda’s mind to spill the beans and come clean to the orchestra, which he did just days before this story published. The NSO has a big year ahead, stepping into spotlights both national and global. In addition to a Carnegie Hall concert on April 18 and the forthcoming completion (starting in May) of its Beethoven symphony cycle paired with symphonic works by George Walker and William Grant Still, the orchestra recently announced its first European tour under Noseda in February 2024. That trip will serve as a homecoming of sorts for Noseda, with a concert at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.

Beginning with a gateway 2011 purchase of a 1725 violin crafted by the Venetian luthier Santo Serafino, Noseda’s collection comprises instruments from luthiers rooted in and around his home region of Lombardy. He grew up in Sesto San Giovanni, a comune of metropolitan Milan he refers to affectionately as “the other side of the tracks.” Noseda’s father was an electrical draftsman for an Italian energy company and, influentially on young Gianandrea, an amateur chorusmaster.

From there, most of the maestro’s instruments were acquired gradually during his years in Turin, where from 2007 to 2018 he served as music director of Teatro Regio. He found himself drawn to instruments from Turinese luthiers such as Giovanni Battista Guadagnini and Giovanni Francesco Pressenda.

Since his 2017 arrival in D.C., he’s purchased an additional two instruments, a violin crafted in 1765 by the Mantuan luthier Tommaso Balestrieri and, most recently, a violin crafted in 1830 by Pressenda. (Two other instruments in his collection, a pair of cellos, remain overseas on loan to other musicians.)

Noseda has worked closely with Carlo Chiesa, a skilled Milanese luthier and curator for the Fondazione pro Canale, whose scholarship on ancient instruments has given him the sensitivity of a sommelier. Noseda tends to talk about instruments from Italy the way he talks about wines, in terms of terroir: A violin from Cremona might sound “wider” than the “soft and sweet” sound of a Venetian instrument.

Chiesa recalls a familiar look of fascination on Noseda’s face when he was making his first purchase in 2011.

“If you know them, violins are a disease,” Chiesa told me by Zoom from Milan. “You get into them and it’s very hard to find a vaccine.”

The hunt for the perfect sound requires an expert’s ear such as Chiesa’s, though the luthier humbly describes his contribution to discussions with Noseda as “staying on the phone and saying ‘yes.’”

“Sometimes he sees an instrument on sale and he calls me and asks me to give an eye to the website of a particular dealer or something,” Chiesa says. “I call him back, and he is prepared: He’s studied and read about the maker, he’s read about his style, who has played his instruments, where they are now. So he’s very, very serious in his search for the best instrument.”

Historical instruments can be valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, caught in a constant push and pull between their cultural significance and the ever-shifting dynamics of the market. (The NSO covers the insurance of Noseda’s instruments, and, in tandem with Tarisio Trust, the foundation performs routine inspections of them every six months.)

Prestigious legacy names like Stradivari and Guarneri (most of which are in the hands of soloists) lead in name recognition, but do not guarantee the best (or more appropriate) instrument. Shared by Chiesa and Noseda is a mutual fondness for beautiful specimens sourced from lesser-known luthiers of a rich Italian legacy.

“Gianandrea is not exactly interested in the highest-priced instrument,” Chiesa said, “but in something that has its own value, meaning something particular and beautiful from a maker who might not be the most important in the world.”

As important as the addition of the instruments has been toward Noseda’s sound-building endeavor, it’s also had a profound team-building effect within the orchestra. After principal players were given first dibs, remaining instruments went into a lottery system, allowing players to acquire them for two-year terms.

Principal second violin Marissa Regni, 54, joined the NSO in 1996 and for years had been playing an 1853 violin by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume with a bright, gleaming sound. In 2019, NSO executive director Gary Ginstling invited principal and titled members to try out a mysterious suite of four rare instruments in a blind test, with players picking up and trying out the instrument with no knowledge of their makers, provenance or worth.

She chose the instrument that Noseda first picked in 2011, the 1725 violin by Serafino. It was slightly smaller than her Vuillaume, with a rounder, more mellow “chocolaty” tone, and she felt immediately connected to it.

“It’s not just an object,” she said. “It becomes like a part of your family, or it’s like a friend. You’re not just spending time with it, you’re creating something with it, you’re trying to put your voice through it — so it really becomes an extension of yourself, your character, your personality.”

Recently, on a rare night off, Regni sat and listened to the orchestra play Shostakovich’s piano concerto. “I was amazed. The strings sound so good. There’s this amazing core quality that we have in our sound now, and I do think it’s very much what [Noseda] imparts to us.”

The National Symphony Orchestra’s principal second violin performs “Meditation from Thais” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Video: Joy Yi, Jayne Orenstein, Sean Carter/The Washington Post)

Regni knew Noseda was into instruments — citing his ability to identify her fellow musicians’ instruments at a glance — but couldn’t account for the nearly parental concern he’d show if, for some reason, she showed up to rehearsal sans Serafino. “Is everything okay?” he’d ask.

“I just always thought it was interesting that he was so concerned about these instruments,” she said with a laugh. “Now it makes sense.”

Shortly after second violin Derek Powell, 37, joined the orchestra in 2020, he was offered an opportunity to select one of the violins. He’d only just recently purchased his own instrument — an 1830 violin from an unattributed French maker — but immediately gravitated to the Pressenda (from the same year).

Powell’s wife, Allyson Goodman — principal viola of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra as well as the Washington National Opera Orchestra — played it from the stage so he could hear it in the hall. He loved its tone (“creamy”), its projection (“ringing”) and its easy feel in his hands — a quality that amounts to more than comfort.

“It frees your mind up to make more musical decisions,” he said, “not just the technical stuff of not making bad sounds.”

Like Regni, Powell had assumed that Noseda’s heightened interest in the violin he’s had since January was just another extension of the maestro’s reliable “nerding out” over his players’ instruments. And like Regni, his surprise at learning the instruments belong to Noseda is balanced by an existing admiration of the conductor’s “generosity and open spirit.”

“He’s willing to take things on himself in order to make the changes that he wants,” Powell said. “He’s trying to achieve a sound that he has in his head, and these are incremental little steps to achieving that.”

“Its very touching that he wants to share them with us,” said Regni. “It’s a gift to us, it’s a gift to the instruments, it’s a gift to the audience … People never made these instruments to sit on a shelf, they’re meant to be heard.”

In addition to galvanizing the players, Noseda hopes his revelation might inspire others — specifically donors — to see (and hear) the differences that can come from such slight but significant tweaks, not just for the players, but the audience.

“These instruments inspire the players to look for different colors, different nuances, different articulations and possibilities,” he said.

“How do you reinvest in your art form? I feel like this is a responsibility. There is a part of me that wants to make things better in my profession. This is never a one-man show.”