He may have been first in the hearts of his countrymen, but George Washington has not necessarily been first in the minds of composers. This makes the National Symphony Orchestra's premiere at the Kennedy Center Thursday night of the distinctively titled "george WASHINGTON" by Roger Reynolds all the more newsy.
When you think of great American presidents in orchestral contexts, the name of Abe Lincoln is likely to come most readily to mind, thanks to Aaron Copland's ever-popular "Lincoln Portrait."
Another assassinated leader, John F. Kennedy, has had a fair share of musical commemorations, too. One of them, Peter Lieberson's "Remembering JFK," was premiered by the NSO a couple years ago.
The Copland and Lieberson pieces employ a single narrator; Reynolds employs three, each reciting words spoken or written by the soldier/statesman from Virginia.
The trio of narrators -- they frequently divide up sentences, creating an interplay of voices -- adds to the theatricality of a work that is very much about theater, incorporating film (by Ross Karre) and sound effects (Jaime Oliver and Josef Kucera).
The engaging high-tech visual and aural components connect the audience closely to our first president's world. Mount Vernon is evoked in particularly atmospheric fashion -- bleak wintry scenes, bird calls (the first-night audience got quite a kick out of hearing ducks), a grinding mill.
With 36 individual screens arranged to form three large ones suspended above the orchestra, and with all those cool surround-sound components, the result resembles the kind of presentations offered in visitor centers at historic sites (including Mount Vernon).
In the space of about 25 minutes, the piece provides a brief survey of Washington's life, with texts that trace his early military career on through marriage, revolution and retirement.
As for the musical content, the opening passage, a recorded harpsichord playing an early American ballad, is especially inspired. The tune floats through the hall, from corner to corner, before slowly distending, dissolving and distorting electronically, as if eroded by time and memory. A great attention-getter.
Once the orchestral portion begins, Reynolds reveals a free harmonic language, capable of considerable spice and kick, and a potent flair for colorful instrumentation. The composer mostly sticks with the tried-and-true approach of narrator works, using the music primarily to punctuate and underline the text.
On first hearing, the score struck me as somewhat faceless, but deftly crafted. The NSO, guided by Christoph Eschenbach, delivered it in vivid style. Clark Young, Thomas Keegan and Philip Larson handled the speaking parts with considerable expressive weight (coordination wasn't quite tight at the start, but quickly jelled).
There's a nice synergy about the NSO premiering a work in Washington about the man the city was named for, and sharing the co-commissioning of "george WASHINGTON" with the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union (the University of California was also a partner).
And, given what has been happening in the capital/capitol this week, there was an extra charge to hearing some of Washington's well-chosen words -- especially the ones about reconciling "opposite interests"; and how "the highest ambition of every American" should be "to extend his views beyond himself"; and how "knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness."
Speaking of happiness, the remainder of the program proved most pleasurable. At the start was an early Haydn symphony, No. 21. Eschenbach shaped it with great finesse and an ear for dynamic subtleties, drawing lithe, transparent playing from the ensemble.
An arresting account of Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony capped the evening.
Eschenbach's remarkable ability to breathe fresh life into the most familiar music was everywhere in evidence. One notable example was the way he had the noble themes of the second movement gathering intensity and warmth as they climbed to the climactic peak.
The conductor's pacing of the last movement was likewise inspired, allowing the tension to build wonderfully, so that the final dash was truly exciting and last chord could really hit home, held the extra few seconds that can make all the difference emotionally.
Once past a bit of slippery articulation and intonation, the NSO turned in a cohesive, rich-toned performance. The strings sounded downright radiant throughout.
William Neil was the polised and polished soloist on the Kennedy Center year-old Rubenstein Family Organ, letting the pipes rip mightily in the finale. I only wish a second or two more reverberation could somehow be added to the Concert Hall -- what an impact that could make with a piece like this.
The hall does have one new thing this season, a fresh paint job. That weird mauve-ish shade is gone at last, replaced by a white/cream mix, closer to how the place first looked in 1971.
Josef KuceraCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun