The Washington Times
, June 2011
The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of music director Christoph Eschenbach, have just internationally released their first CD on the Finnish Ondine label. The new disc reprises the Orchestra’s historic concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was recorded live in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this past January. It also represents the first recording the Orchestra has made in a decade.
NSO’s new CD includes the world premiere performance of Peter Lieberson’s new composition Remembering JFK (An American Elegy), commissioned for the concert by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund. Actor Richard Dreyfuss served as narrator of the work during the recorded concert, reading from selected works—primarily the key speeches made by Kennedy during his tragically brief but historically significant presidency. (Veteran actor Morgan Freeman narrated the work during the initial concert of this series.)
The CD also includes Leonard Bernstein’s brief Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK—first performed at the primary Inaugural Ball—and his popular Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The disk concludes with a performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major, featuring American pianist Tzimon Barto as the piano soloist.
This NSO CD was made possible in part by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Peter Lieberson’s Remembering JFK was commissioned under the auspices of the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works.
As an added bonus for both music and history buffs, the CD jewel case also houses a highly evocative additional CD recorded from the January 19 live broadcast of the 1961 Inaugural Concert by the old Mutual Broadcasting System. Unreleased until now, this broadcast brings back memories of a long-ago era that nonetheless has contemporary overtones, particularly with regard to traffic issues during inclement weather.
Music on this disc includes a patriotic but largely forgettable John La Montaine’s Overture From Sea to Shining Sea by John La Montaine, (commissioned by the NSO); the first movement from Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom with the Georgetown University Glee Club directed by longtime Washington Post music critic Paul Hume (singers from Howard University Choir were also to appear but their bus never made it); and a full performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with piano soloist Earl Wild.
All in all, the bonus disc offers a unique window into another era when, even in the midst of a natural disaster, the official tone—up to and including the grave, authoritative broadcast voice of Tony Marvin—seemed far more dignified than it is today.
Of course, the main event for the NSO’s newest CD is the main disc which features the works performed during the 50th anniversary concert, which actually opened with a brief 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 CD skips the film for obvious reasons and opens with Bernstein’s brief but fizzy Fanfare, which was actually performed at the Armory in 1961 and not in Constitution Hall.
Next up is Mr. Lieberson’s new piece. Like LaMontaine’s commission 50 years ago, Mr. Lieberson doesn’t break any new ground in his composition, though it’s pleasant enough and hits many of the right patriotic notes along with a few tragic ones.
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.
For the CD’s next series of tracks, Maestro Eschenbach and the orchestra move directly into the “Symphonic Dances” from Bernstein’s best-known composition, West Side Story.
It’s these dances that, along with the bonus CD, are the highlight of this package. Mr. Eschenbach and the orchestra somehow reached an entirely new plane of excellence during this performance. 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’s an awesome, visceral performance.
The concert—and the recording—conclude with Gershwin’s ambitious “Piano Concerto in F-major” with controversial American pianist Tzimon Barto—a longtime Eschenbach friend—in the piano pilot seat.
The orchestra once again got it right, brilliantly re-creating the all-American spirit of this symphonic jazz classic. The brass—particularly the solo trumpets—were brilliantly smooth and tastefully sleazy in the concerto’s slow movement. Better still, the percussionists again showed how it’s done.
Mr. Barto’s playing is eccentric, and yet, paradoxically, challenging and fascinating. His pianississimos are quite faint, sometimes affecting the balance of this recording and no doubt giving the engineers fits as they tried to fine-tune the results.
On the other hand, the crispness and precision of Mr. Barto’s Prokofiev-like percussive attacks provided a welcome contrast, always showing up right when they were needed the most.
While there are better recordings of the Gershwin concerto around, the NSO’s new CD is still well worth owning. The ensemble’s performances Bernstein compositions are top-notch and the bonus CD brings back memories of America’s own Camelot legend, a time where music, culture, arts, and politics seemed, albeit briefly, to be in total harmony and when Democrats and Republicans alike knew who their international friends and enemies really were.
Those days are long gone. America’s dominance has, at least for now, been throttled by the ongoing effects of the Great Recession. And much of the Camelot legend has since been dimmed by the disclosure of realities once carefully concealed.
But for those who lived through these times, the memories still evoke a warm, hopeful glow. And the NSO’s newest CD package goes a long way toward making that era more of a reality for successive generations who’ve never experienced a time when all things seemed within America’s grasp.