WASHINGTON, January 23, 2011 – Upon entering the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Saturday evening, National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) patrons noticed a large movie screen lowered over the vacant chorister seats at stage rear. The message it carried was a familiar one: turn off those cell phones, iPhones, and Blackberrys.
But the reason for the added emphasis was a good one: Saturday’s concert was being recorded live. It’s slated to become part of a new NSO CD to be released this spring—the orchestra’s first after ten years in the recording wilderness.
Saturday’s concert—an unusual opening night for regular season concertgoers—was part of the Kennedy Center’s celebration this month of the president who, posthumously alas, gave the Center its name. Why this weekend? It’s the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration and a fitting moment to pause and celebrate his memory.
Keeping with the theme, the musical portion of the program commenced with “Remembering JFK (An American Elegy),” a new work by composer Peter Lieberson commissioned for the NSO and given its world premiere at these performances.
Lieberson’s composition was prefaced by a short, commemorative Joseph Horowitz/Peter Bogdanoff film highlighting excerpts from Kennedy’s much-admired Inaugural Address, as well as a less famous, yet equally significant commencement speech he delivered at American University. The film was a poignant look back on a fairly recent period in the nation’s history, a time that almost seems to have been forgotten.
Kennedy broke through the religion barrier as the first Catholic ever elected to the nation’s highest office. And he was perhaps the most eloquent presidential orator in modern times, rivaled only by Ronald Reagan.
What was most striking in the film were Kennedy’s actual words, firmly supporting the nation’s defense along with American exceptionalism. He sounded in many ways like a contemporary Republican politician, illustrating how far each party has traveled in one direction or the other since 1961. Ironically, it’s virtually certain that many of his most stirring words were penned, by chief presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen, who narrated the film clips, never giving a hint that he’d contributed to the President’s famous, soaring, inspirational rhetoric.
Nonetheless, in the end, a speech is all in the delivery, and JFK knew how to hold—and inspire—an audience, as did few others in his time.
But more pertinent to this concert event than presidential politics is the fact that neither before nor since the Kennedy Administration has any president so strongly supported the performing arts in word and in deed. While many claim that this support was primarily due to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s persistent activities, the President ultimately backed her efforts to honor and feature the finest classical artists in the world at showy White House recitals and soirees backed by great PR.
In addition, they supported and encouraged local performing arts organizations including the NSO, which played for the Presidential Inauguration in spite of one of Washington’s wicked periodical Inaugural blizzards—an event also highlighted, with some unintentional humor, in the film.
JFK’s support for the arts is the primary reason that Washington’s massive performing arts center, built on the banks of the Potomac, was named after him. This weekend’s NSO concert series was a fitting and timely memorial to his memory.
Following the film, the NSO, Maestro Eschenbach (just returned from his lengthy European sojourn) re-materialized on stage as the lights went up. Also seated center stage was actor Richard Dreyfuss, who provided the narration for Lieberson’s new piece. (Morgan Freeman had performed that task during Thursday’s gala.)
Lieberson’s new composition didn’t break any new ground. Building from an initial, profoundly sorrowful opening motif, it is above all an elegy, mourning, in effect, the loss of a brief musical and artistic golden age. Mr. Dreyfuss underpinned the loss of spirit and motivation by again echoing many of the stirring presidential exhortations that were heard in the preceding film.
Perhaps the most interesting moments in “Remembering JFK” occurred in roughly the final third of the piece when Lieberson interject a solemn motif from a late Brahms composition, building quietly pleasant variations that lead to a quietly fading finale.
After the intermission, the character of the concert changed, moving first to the music of Leonard Bernstein—always one of JFK’s greatest fans—and finally to George Gershwin, finally being celebrated these days as America’s greatest composer to date.
After leading with Bernstein’s flashy, incredibly brief “Fanfare” for JFK’s inaugural (initially performed by a kind of “pick-up” band due to the snowstorm), Maestro Eschenbach and the orchestra moved directly into the “Symphonic Dances” from Bernstein’s best-known composition, West Side Story.
Candidly, both Mr. Eschenbach and the orchestra somehow reached an entirely new plane of excellence in this performance. Who’s to say whether they were inspired by the event, acutely aware they were being recorded, or just having a good time?
The brass sounded great; the percussionists blasted forth with the abandon of rock superstars, particularly during the raucous “Mambo” excerpt; and Mr. Eschenbach himself, though a European by birth, seemed somehow to be channeling Bernstein’s quirky, jazzy personality right into the players themselves. It was an awesome, visceral performance, and the audience erupted into a spontaneous ovation after the final bars of the mournful, tolling finale drifted away, “Somewhere.”
The NSO didn’t lose its enthusiasm during the program’s finale, either. The concert concluded with a performance of Gershwin’s ambitious “Piano Concerto in F-major” which featured quirky controversial, American writer, bodybuilder, and pianist Tzimon Barto—a longtime Eschenbach friend—in the solo role.
The orchestra once again got it right, brilliantly re-creating the all-American spirit of this symphonic jazz classic. Again, the brass—particularly the solo trumpets—were brilliantly smooth and tastefully sleazy in the concerto’s slow movement. Meanwhile, the percussionists once again showed how it’s done, demonstrating the kind of versatility that, outside of the concert hall, most people don’t realize is an every day reality for top-notch classical musicians.
Mr. Barto’s playing was eccentric, occasionally to the point of irritation. And yet, paradoxically, his interpretation of the Gershwin was challenging and compelling.
On the negative side, Mr. Barto’s pianississimos could scarcely be heard past the midpoint of the hall, a matter made worse by some lusty and ill-timed cough and catarrh blasts from male audience members that seem to have been especially reserved for the concerto’s quietest moments. (Hopefully the engineers can remove these percussive intrusions in the mixing room when mixing the NSO’s CD tracks.)
On the other hand, the crispness and precision of Mr. Barto’s visceral, Prokofiev-like attacks provided a welcome contrast, always showing up right when the music needed them the most. His execution of the last movement’s series of rapidly repeated single notes was also impressive, highlighted by its almost machine-like precision.
When added to the NSO’s sheer enthusiasm and exuberance, Mr. Barto’s distinctive performance will help assure that the orchestra’s upcoming disk will distinguish itself among the many recordings of this work that are already out there.
After the concerto’s dramatic, concluding trills, the audience erupted once again in an enthusiastic, appreciative ovation. Mr. Barto obliged by offering as a solo encore an unusually accented version of a Scott Joplin rag—a symbolically and musically fitting conclusion to this rousing, all-American memorial to the president who put America’s performing arts back into the country’s consciousness some fifty years ago.
Rating: **** (Four stars.)
The concert will be repeated this evening, January 24, at 7 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets and information, click here.
Read more of Terry’s work at “Curtain Up!” in the Communities at the Washington Times.
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