Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, October 2011

JFK’s ‘original’ inauguration concert and its 50th anniversary, both caught live

The inauguration of President Kennedy in January 1961 seemed to usher in a new age for prominent creative artists in the United States. They were immediately invited to the White House. When Stravinsky was there Kennedy asked him how he felt and he answered: “Quite drunk, thank you, Mr President.” All that didn’t last and Kennedy was assassinated in 1963…Gershwin was featured in both the 1961 Inaugural Concert and the 2011 50th Anniversary Concert. In 1961 Earl Wild played the Rhapsody in Blue—a punchy dry interpretation taking some risks that all come off—and in 2011 Tzimon Barto was the soloist in the Piano Concerto. It must be almost impossible to find something different to do with such an over-exposed piece. In the first movement Barto breaks up his opening solo at every opportunity and makes the orchestra do the same: his pauses and some pianissimo effects seem exaggerated.

The novelty, commissioned for the occasion, is Peter Lieberson’s Remembering JFK—An American Elegy with spoken passages taken from Kennedy’s speeches. It’s in the tradition of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait but whereas Copland uses the speaker only in the final section, Lieberson’s music functions like a film soundtrack. Further, Copland knew how to leave space for the speaker who sometimes struggles here to get through the orchestral texture.

In the final section, with extracts from a speech about world peace as “the most important topic on earth”, Lieberson simply scores the fourth of Brahms’s Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ. The mood is appropriate but the use of Brahms prevents Lieberson from putting his own stamp on the work.

A Liberal’s Libretto, July 2011

Today, the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our government…at every level, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities. For those to whom much is given, much is required.—President-Elect John F. Kennedy 1961

These words are the first words that come to life within a spectacular piece of music that was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Now, I don’t have to remind you that I am truly am truly obsessed with news, politics and the like. I’m the guy who sets the DVR for pretty much any major news story that requires all day and/or all night coverage. I have to be totally honest, though…specifically, I love a great news story that includes even the smallest amount of pomp and circumstance.

I can’t help it—I’m Episcopalian. We love our pomp and circumstance.

If you take news, politics, pomp and circumstance and add to it a pinch of vintage ’50s or ’60—I, my Friends, go completely bonkers. I mean over the moon. I mean wack-a-doodle.

obsession [uhb-sesh-uhn]: the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, etc. the state of being obsessed. the act of obsessing.

Yep. That pretty much covers all of the bases.

Now, to the piece of music I was discussing earlier—as I said, Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Written by Peter Lieberson, who was just a young lad when JFK was elected, Remembering JFK is certainly the cornerstone of the first disc in this stellar set.

Lieberson points out:

My generation took a certain kind of inspiration just in Kennedy’s presence, in his words.

For his portrait of Kennedy, Lieberson drew on the inspiration of Kennedy’s words by showcasing excerpts from three separate speeches, chronologically ordered. The first is from January 9, 1961 when then president-elect Kennedy addressed the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The second is from the January 20, 1961 Inaugural Address and the third is from June 10, 1963 when President Kennedy addressed the graduating class of American University. Again, Peter Lieberson:

There is an elegiac quality surrounding this inspirational figure, since in the end he was not able to accomplish so much of what he wanted. But there was also a practical element in his understanding of human nature that couples with the visionary. I chose speeches that reflect both.

The narration in these kinds of pieces can be tricky because one wants to hear the commanding authority of a president without an imitation of the man who spoke the words decades ago. In this case, the narration is provided to us by the very distinctive voice of Mr. Richard Dreyfuss—who does just that…gives us the commanding authority without affectation.

Lieberson, who was born in 1946, grew up in a very artistic family. Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein were regular visitors to the Lieberson’s Upper West Side, Manhattan home and certainly, the aura of Bernstein is evident from the very opening bars of the piece…as are little flecks of Stravinsky.

Other pieces of note on this first disc in the set are George Gershwin’s magnificently groovy Concerto in F, Leonard Bernstein’s iconic Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the 35 seconds long Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy also written by Bernstein.

Putting aside Mr. Americana, Aaron Copland, I can’t imagine a better group of pieces to befittingly convey through music the delight, inspiration, encouragement, joy and true optimism that Kennedy’s Inauguration brought to so many Americans.

The night before that inauguration 50 years ago, Howard Mitchell conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an Inaugural Concert in honor of the president-elect. The second disc in this set brings highlights from that concert—including marvelously vintage radio commentary by reporters from Mutual Broadcasting. Just to hear the radio commentary describing every detail with precision and depth warms the heart of this ardent admirer of the simpler, classier and swanky-er times…times when all of the arts were seen as an essential part of American identity.

Less than a month before his assassination, President Kennedy gave a speech in honor of the memory of poet Robert Frost. It outlined his vision of the challenge that the arts must pose for a strong and flourishing democracy. He said in part:

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

On this incredibly hot weekend in NYC, do yourself a huge favor get yourself a copy of this.

David Hurwitz, July 2011

Whether or not you want this souvenir disc depends on how you feel about the concept. On the plus side, the “bonus disc” is in fact the main attraction. It contains a serviceable mono aircheck of JFK’s actual inauguration concert in 1961, consisting of The Star-Spangled Banner, John La Montaine’s attractive overture From Sea to Shining Sea, the first movement of Randall Thompson’s The Testament of Freedom, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue performed by the incomparable Earl Wild, all with the National Symphony led by Howard Mitchell. The original radio commentary adds a nice period flavor to the occasion. It really is an appealing bit of musical/political history., June 2011

Sometimes the music is almost beside the point. Music can be a memory booster, an anodyne for everyday cares, a reminder of better times, a way of recapturing the past or coming to terms with it. When used in these ways, it can become secondary to the emotions it draws forth from listeners—especially when those listeners are predisposed to react with a particular type of emotion because of the circumstances in which a concert is presented. Thus, the quality of the performances was largely incidental at a January 2011 memorial concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., because the event was staged as a remembrance of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. People essentially attended a memorial service that happened to be built around music and was being held in a venue named for Kennedy after he was assassinated: the emotions surrounding the event were what mattered. And they are also what will matter to purchasers of the two-CD set based on the 50th-anniversary concert and in part recorded live at the time. The CD’s cover features John and Jackie Kennedy in one of their typically hagiographic and elegant poses—a clear invitation to nostalgia. As it happens, this is the first National Symphony Orchestra recording under the ensemble’s new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, and it is certainly a worthy one, including music actually played in 1961 as well as some created as a Kennedy tribute. Thus, Leonard Bernstein’s Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy is followed by Peter Lieberson’s Remembering JFK (An American Elegy), in which actor Richard Dreyfuss intones excerpts from three Kennedy speeches, separated by orchestral interludes. The piece serves its purpose well, although it seems too much of an occasional work to have much staying power. Also here are Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” with Eschenbach predictably emphasizing the slower and more emotive music, and then Gershwin’s Concerto in F with pianist Tzimon Barto. This is a bright, well-played rendition, perhaps a little lacking in vivacity—and it contrasts in many interesting ways with the version featuring Earl Wild that appears on the second CD. That one was recorded at Kennedy’s inaugural concert, with the National Symphony led by its then-conductor, Howard Mitchell. The Wild/Mitchell version, despite its not-quite-top-quality sound, is altogether more winning and forthcoming than the Barto/Eschenbach one. The second CD also includes excerpts and original commentary from the radio broadcast of Kennedy’s inaugural concert—a fitting addition to a recording in which music matters less than what it evokes.

Terry Ponick
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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group