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Close Encounter with the NSO

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The National Symphony Orchestra had a week off from its regular concerts, but many of the musicians, including concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and a heartening number of other principals, performed in the season's first family concerts on Sunday afternoon. Associate conductor Emil de Cou was trying to lead a fairly standard program of bubbly American music for the youngsters filling the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, when two aliens from Planet X showed up in their flying saucer. It was, of course, just the actors of the Magic Circle Mime Company, who appeared with the NSO last spring in a Peter and the Wolf that was a big hit with Master Ionarts and Miss Ionarts.

The two aliens spoke a sort of percussion language, striking their costumes to produce a range of clicks, clatters, squeaks, and chimes. Their goggle-eyed costumes and customized light show frightened the younger Miss Ionarts, although she was soon convinced that the aliens were just funny and friendly. We learned later, at a post-concert discussion with the actors that they based their design concept for the alien costumes on 1950s alien movies. The orchestra played ear-pleasing selections of Americana, with only two Copland pieces and Scott Joplin's The Entertainer being overly familiar. Master Ionarts most enjoyed the pulsating introductory work, Overture to Planet X, which featured the families of instruments taking the stage together, beginning with the percussion and continuing with the woodwinds, brass, and strings.

The best musical discoveries were the "All-American City" movement from Don Gillis's Symphony X (the work he subtitled The Big D, a musical description of the city of Dallas) and Morton Gould's jazz-flavored American Symphonette No. 2. Both children enjoyed the music but were happiest when the aliens returned for more of their antics, stealing Emil de Cou's microphone, brain-washing the orchestra, and communicating via their marvelous radio box that helped them perform Leroy Anderson's The Typewriter. Afterwards, as we ate sandwiches on the Kennedy Center river terrace, both children gave this concert five stars out of a possible five.

Iván Fischer will conduct the remaining children's concert this fall, which will be performed by ensembles of NSO musicians in the Kennedy Center Family Theater (November 2, 2 and 4 pm). As both concerts are already sold out, you may want to plan for one of the many children's concerts in 2009.

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