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Crisp, warm, responsive. The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) is on a journey to meet these benchmarks under the baton of music director Gianandrea Noseda. One of the ways in which he’s shaping a new sound is through some very old instruments. The oldest is a violin made in 1686 in Cremona, Italy.
Since 2019, Noseda has been quietly loaning 17th – 19th century Italian string instruments from his private collection to the NSO. The musicians playing them had no idea that they came from their conductor — until now.
“I’m not saying that good instruments make the orchestra; the orchestra is made by great musicians. But if you give a good driver a good Ferrari, the driver also will drive faster,” Noseda told Morning Edition host Leila Fadel in an interview at his office in Washington, D.C.
These seven violins and a viola are worth a total of around five million dollars. It’s a major investment for Noseda, who grew up in a modest neighborhood of Milan, where his father was an electrical draftsman and his mother was a homemaker.
From Italy to Tokyo
Noseda got the idea of purchasing and donating instruments a few years ago. While guest-conducting Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra in 2010, he noticed that many of the musicians were playing old Italian instruments.
“The orchestra had a certain sound, very disciplined because of the Japanese culture, but also warm in a way given by the instruments,” he recalled. “I was shocked by this experience.”
The following year, Noseda — who is a piano player, not a string player — purchased a violin and lent it to the concertmaster, or lead violinist, of the Teatro Regio Terino he directed at the time.
“I immediately realized that it made a difference,” Noseda said.
That violin, made in 1725 by Santo Serafin in Venice, is now being played by Marissa Regni, the NSO’s principal second violin.
“The instrument is like a vessel to get the sound out. So if you’ve got a great instrument, you can really think about the tone, quality, all the most important things,” Regni said. “If you don’t have a great vessel…. it’s like you’re straining your voice, like you think you’re being louder, it’s not as beautiful a tone.”
Noseda’s loan program gives right of first refusal to the lead players, or principals, of each applicable orchestra section, after which other musicians can obtain the instruments on a rotating two-year loan.
“This instrument is much more mellow, round sound, very silvery on the E string but I feel like the G string is very chocolaty,” Regni said, as she demonstrated on the violin.
Changing the orchestra’s sound
But how do you do you go about changing the sound of a symphony orchestra?
“The most important thing is when you work day by day, inspiring the way to make the orchestra interact… create an expanded chamber music where everybody knows what to listen for, how to cooperate,” Noseda explained.
Both he and Marissa Regni, the NSO’s principal second violin, pointed to the importance of being surrounded by great musicians.
“If you hear a beautiful sound near you… you want to sound as beautiful as that person,” is how Regni put it. “It’s not I want to be as good as them. It’s because you want to create this incredible sound. In order to do that, you all have to do it right. You all have to have that goal.”
Crucial role of instrument loans
Few classical musicians can afford valuable instruments made by esteemed luthiers like Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1644-1737). That’s where foundations and wealthy benefactors come in. Noseda’s instruments range from a violin made by Francesco Ruggeri in 1686 to an 1830 violin made by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda. Noseda also owns two cellos and intends to soon bring one to the NSO. The other is on loan to a young cellist in Italy.
“At a certain point, you feel the real necessity to give back,” Noseda told NPR’s Leila Fadel. The instruments, he added, “will live longer than me. But now I think it’s important that they will inspire people in the orchestra to also deliver a better sound world.”
But at the beating heart of the orchestra remain the dozens of living souls who bring the ensemble to life.
“Once a very close friend of mine conductor told me that it’s not important that you become a star,” Noseda recalled. “As a music director, it is even more important if you are surrounded by stars. Because all the light they produce will make you brighter.”
Barry Gordemer produced the radio version of this story and Miranda Kennedy edited the digital version. Keren Carrión produced and edited the video. Emily Bogle edited the photos.