By staid current standards, this week’s subscription program of the New York Philharmonic should perhaps be seen as a mild adventure. It includes a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh,” of 1904, which the orchestra programmed only once before, in 1994; and Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, of 1935-38, which the Philharmonic last performed in 2003.
As an added attraction, Frank Huang, the orchestra’s popular concertmaster, is playing a major violin concerto, Saint-Saëns’s Third. Still, most listeners at the first performance, on Wednesday evening, probably focused more on the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, returning to the orchestra after more than a decade away.
The Philharmonic is in a period of multiple transitions, with Jaap van Zweden, still relatively little known, in the wings to succeed Alan Gilbert as music director next season; with the vaunted Deborah Borda having just returned to manage it, this time as president and chief executive officer; and with the daunting prospect of yet another renovation of its hall in the coming years.
And Mr. Noseda — at 53, a maestro of considerable achievement who seems for whatever reason not to have been seriously considered to direct the Philharmonic — is himself in transition, newly installed as the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, in what must be considered a major coup for that perennially second-tier ensemble.
Mr. Noseda, evidently still recovering from back surgery in June and using a high stool part of the time, lacked nothing in vigor and elicited ready responses from the orchestra throughout in what seemed something of a lovefest. The players joined the audience acclaim at the end and gave Mr. Noseda a solo bow, ignoring his indication for them to stand and share a curtain call.
There was reason to applaud. The “Kitezh” suite is an odd succession of movements (assembled by Rimsky’s pupil Maximilian Steinberg), full of the color and imagination you would expect from a brilliant orchestrator exploring exotic terrain. From the strings’ hushed hymn to nature at the opening, through invasion and battle music, to a glittering apotheosis, complete with bells, chimes and cymbals, Mr. Noseda drew polished playing through the full dynamic spectrum.
Much the same could be said of the Rachmaninoff, which received a coherent yet flexible, even mercurial, account. Sheryl Staples, the principal associate concertmaster, gave lovely turns to the violin solos in the absence of Mr. Huang, who had his hands full with his concerto performance.