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January 23, 2011

National Symphony marks JFK anniversary with new Lieberson work

The 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration is the focus of much attention this month at the center in Washington that bears his name and carries on his belief in the value of the arts.

Last Thursday, during a big, starry, multi-genre program, the National Symphony Orchestra premiered "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)" by Peter Lieberson. On Saturday night, the NSO repeated the new work, commissioned for the anniversary, and rounded out the program with some favorites by Gershwin and Bernstein. (This program has another performance Monday night.)

I have never been a huge fan of orchestral music with narration. The combination certainly can pay off with heightened drama, as in Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw," or straightforward entertainment, as in Copland's plainspoken "Lincoln Portrait." Lieberson's effort struck me as, well, wordy.

The composer chose excerpts from three great Kennedy speeches -- a speech from early January 1961 in Massachusetts, the defining Inaugural Address, and the brave American University Commencement Address of 1963.

Lieberson surrounds the orations with a lot of vividly colored, atmospheric, emotionally telling material for the orchestra. As in film music, descriptive devices underline the mood or imagery of the text in ways we instinctively respond to; mention of war, needless to say, means outbursts of ominous harmony and menacing brass and/or percussion.

From a single hearing -- I'm glad I'll get a chance to revisit the piece when the NSO's recording comes out in a few months -- it seemed to me that the music

doesn't quite rise to the eloquence of the Kennedy's words. Not enough is added to, or expounded from, the intrinsic power of the speeches.

Still, the new score does what it set out to do -- remind us of the man we lost too young and the ideas that inspired so many, ideas that are only more worthy today. Saturday's performance was very effective, presented immediately the showing of a short, rather affecting film by Joseph Horowitz and Peter Bogdanoff that included footage from the NSO's 1961 inaugural concert and a wonderful interview with Ted Sorensen recorded just a few weeks before his death.

The narrator for the Lieberson piece on Saturday was Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss, who delivered Kennedy's lines masterfully, never overplaying any of them. (If he was unnerved by having the actual voice of the president booming in the hall minutes earlier from the film, it didn't show.) On the podium, NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach kept everything flowing smoothly and drew vivid playing from the orchestra.

The second half of the concert provided a welcome opportunity to hear Bernstein's minute-long, entertaining "Fanfare for the Inauguration of JFK" for winds, brass and percussion. The composer's better known "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story" received a passionate, snappy workout. Eschenbach relished the lyrical passages, but did not stint on the flashes of cool jazz.

The orchestra sounded wonderfully robust in those dances. Other than a grainy trumpet solo in the slow movement, the NSO also made some impressive contributions to Gershwin's Concerto in F. The soloist's contributions in that piece were another matter.

Tzimon Barto (once upon a time, just plain Johnny Barto Smith, Jr., from a town near Orlando) is a body-building, multi-lingual, novel-writing keyboard artist who has a long association with Eschenbach in concert halls and recording studios. The conductor hears in the pianist more qualities than some of us do.

I found myself mostly frustrated on Saturday, first by the incredibly slow tempos that kept overriding Gershwin's own energetic pulse; and then by Barto's playing. There were flashes of bravura and of intriguing poetic nuances, but there wasn't quite enough technical dazzle or richness in tone to keep things fully interesting.  

The pianist apparently thinks of the concerto as Gershwin's attempt to out-do Rachmaninoff, an approach Eschenbach embraced with a conviction you had to admire. I'm far more open to extremes than many of my colleagues, and I really wanted to buy into this exercise in elongation, this search for profound depths amidst the Charleston rhythms, but I just kept missing the guy I recognize as Gershwin.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, NSO

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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