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NSO Puts Kennedy Back in Kennedy Center

It is hard to imagine the American political landscape in which President John F. Kennedy could go to Amherst College, as he did on October 26, 1963, to make a major speech about the importance of the arts in the nation's life. The occasion was in honor of Robert Frost, who had spoken at the young president's inauguration, but among many interesting things about the role of the artist in society, Kennedy made the following revelatory statement:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
These are words that are engraved, alongside other excerpts from Kennedy's speeches, on the terrace wall of the performing arts center that bears his name, at the edge of the Potomac River. Within a year or two of Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson created national endowments for the arts and humanities that were intended to give birth to the artistic blossoming Kennedy envisioned. In a month-long festival in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration, the Kennedy Center brings us back to JFK's admonishment that "In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology." Oh, if only that were true.

Last Thursday night, official Washington at least paid lip service to the ideal, with a massive tribute concert involving the National Symphony Orchestra, American Ballet Theater, and others. It was the sort of event I was only too glad to miss, but I was able to hear the first of the NSO's subsequent concerts, on Saturday night, that included the piece commissioned by the orchestra for the event. American composer Peter Lieberson had the misfortune to receive the commission, the musical equivalent of the sort of official doggerel ordered by monarchs from their poets laureate. Falling into the Copland Lincoln Portrait trap -- see Peter Schickele's hilarious send-up of the genre -- Lieberson provided a background score of nondescript solemnity to some excerpts of Kennedy's speeches, read dutifully by Richard Dreyfuss. Lots of plaintive cello solos, a momentum-gathering timpani beat, hints of Bernstein and Copland: it made even Kennedy's words seem prosaic. The piece was introduced by a lionizing film, featuring the remembrances of Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen, and followed, after intermission, by an equally negligible trifle, Bernstein's Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK, in its first performance by the NSO. Why start now? At only a minute or so longer, I would have much preferred to hear Stravinsky's Elegy for JFK (not that it is necessarily a piece for the ages, but at least there is some substance).

The point of including Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story on the program, I suppose, was to offer a distillation of the hopeful feelings of the era -- the musical was premiered in 1957. Amid some rather discombobulated playing -- a shaky sense of rhythmic ensemble pervaded the work -- the most musical moments came in the introduction to the Somewhere tune, for harp and lustrous solo strings. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach, who might not be expected to have the most innate grasp on this sort of American music, gave the percussion section its head, and they obligingly drowned out most of the other sections at several points in the Mambo and Cool ("Boy, boy, crazy boy") arrangements. The latter tune was taken at an edgily fast tempo, which gave the work an exciting climax but at the loss of any chance at subtlety.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, National Symphony Orchestra (Washington Post, January 24)

Terry Ponick, National Symphony Orchestra shines in JFK tribute (Washington Times, January 24)

Tim Smith, National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work (Baltimore Sun, January 23)

Anne Midgette, Kennedy Center opens JFK commemoration with distinguished crowd (Washington Post, January 21)
We and others have already said everything there is to say about American pianist Tzimon Barto. It goes without saying that a Barto performance will be independent, even willful, and his take on Gershwin's piano concerto was no different. If the thing you most enjoy in a performance is not having any idea exactly what the performer will do next -- and neither conductor nor accompanying orchestra seeming to know, either (in this regard, it did not even help Oscar Levant, in his famous Gershwin hallucination in An American in Paris, to be at once soloist, conductor, and every player in the orchestra) -- this rendition was for you. Unlike Fazil Say's equally erratic rendition of Rhapsody in Blue with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, Barto's affected manipulations of tempo, strange twists and turns of phrase, and physical gyrations did not add up to anything compelling. It does not bode well for the NSO's debut on the Ondine label, the record deal that Eschenbach brought with him to Washington: this program, recorded live, will be the first recording by the NSO released since 2001.

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