National anthem gets a triple salute

Review: Composers' valentines to America receive rousing treatment by symphony in Washington.

February 02, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Just as converts to a religion can be the more zealous than those born into the faith, folks who adopt a new homeland can be the most patriotic, passionately embracing what natives may take for granted.

The National Symphony Orchestra kicked off its fascinating, six-concert festival, Journey to America: A Musical Immigration, with two examples of such an embrace, along with a no less earnest salute from a part-time visitor. On top of all that were three different arrangements of "The Star-Spangled Banner," two by foreign-born conductors and the third by an American bandmaster with a thing for Wagner.

NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, who has an enviable knack for putting together festivals that are as fun as they are enlightening, made a determined case for everything on Thursday's program, even Antonin Dvorak's uninspired The American Flag.

With a high-falutin' poem by Joseph Rodman Drake as its text - "And, fixed as yonder orb divine/That saw thy bannered blaze unfurled/Shall thy proud stars resplendent shine/The guard and glory of the world!"- the cantata lumbers along.

It's obvious, creaky, rather ponderous, but sometimes awfully amiable, too. Never mind that Dvorak's tunes are a lot more Czech than American, especially for an extended martial passage.

Slatkin encouraged a committed (if occasionally unpolished) performance from the NSO and Washington Chorus. Baritone Vladimir Shvets had just enough tonal weight for the assignment; tenor Corey Evan Rotz tackled his high-lying solo with panache.

Dvorak's score deserves to be on the sidelines, but it's still intriguing to hear a great composer off his game. By contrast, Ernst von Dohnanyi's American Rhapsody and Ernest Bloch's America have a lot more going for them.

Bloch's "epic rhapsody" is more like a rumination in three chapters - the America of 1620, the Civil War era, and the present (circa 1926). But if the long score loses points on structural grounds, it compensates with imaginative use of folk and popular songs and consistently inspired orchestration that paints evocative pictures in sound.

The second movement eulogy for Lincoln is quite powerful, as is the third movement's depiction of the 20th-century battle between man and machines. Bloch's finishing touch is a stirring chorale with his own free-verse text. Apparently, he truly believed that the public would embrace it as a national anthem - "The Star-Spangled Banner" didn't receive that official designation until a few years later.

To be sure, that tune is catchy and noble in character, if not quite indelible. Besides, schoolboys would have had a field day abusing the second line, which starts "My love for thee arouses me." (It ends, "to nobler thoughts and deeds," in case you were wondering).

The Swiss-born Bloch's sincerity came through tellingly under Slatkin's guidance. The playing, especially from the strings, was potent in tone and phrasing.

You have to admire a work that manages to make a quotation of "On Top of Old Smoky" sound almost heroic, rather than silly. Dohnanyi does that and much more in his 1953 rhapsody, which artfully combines all sorts of American tunes into a vibrant orchestral showpiece. If the harmonic language ultimately can't disguise the composer's Hungarian origin, its richness is irresistible.

Slatkin and the NSO seemed to relish the music's high spirits. There was similar commitment and flair in the various national anthem arrangements. Leopold Stokowski's, with its occasionally jolting chords, revealed a Technicolor flair, and John Philip Sousa's was a kick, with the violins using a riff from Wagner's Tannhauser Overture as rambunctious counterpoint to the dawn's early light.

Concert

What: National Symphony Orchestra's Journey to America

Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2600 N. Virginia Ave. NW, Washington

When: 8:30 p.m. today, Friday and Feb. 9; 7 p.m. Thursday; through Feb. 9

Tickets: $18 to $69

Call: 800-444-1324

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