For Arundel conductor, a smart, stirring debut

Concert: J. Ernest Green leads the National Symphony Orchestra in an emotional performance in Washington.

August 01, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Is it worth a 45-minute drive to Rock Creek Park to attend a free outdoor concert? The answer is a resounding yes if the outdoor location is Washington's natural acoustic wonder, the Carter Barron Amphitheater, and the performance is by the National Symphony Orchestra led by Anne Arundel County's own J. Ernest Green in his debut with the orchestra.

Saturday marked a triumph for Green and a history-making musical event for Annapolis Chorale members and loyal Green fans who shared the evening.

Since November, Green has been a cover (or stand-in) conductor, meaning that he must learn the orchestra's entire repertoire for programs that he is assigned to cover. Green chose all of the selections for Saturday's program.

Fascinated with American music, Green chose a program that reflected his keen sense of history, elegant musical taste, confidence in the musicians and ability to showcase the orchestra's strengths.

The program began with "The Star-Spangled Banner" sung by a near-capacity audience accompanied by the orchestra. Picture all of this happening in the gorgeous setting of the capital's best outdoor theater, named for a friend of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

A Washington resident for 13 years, Carter T. Barron envisioned this theater as a place where Americans of every race and creed could enjoy cultural events together. Since 1950, when Truman dedicated the 4,200-seat amphitheater, it has featured popular and classical entertainers such as Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong and Stevie Wonder, and, always, the National Symphony Orchestra.

Green chose two works by Leonard Bernstein, a delightful upbeat rendition of the overture to Candide that displayed its infectious rhythms in a breathtakingly rapid tempo, followed by selections from the 1957 triumph West Side Story.

Always courageous about displaying the emotional core of music, Green led the orchestra in a dazzling variety of lush melodies such as "Maria," moving from hushed to soaring; a romantic "Tonight" filled with breathless anticipation; and a "Somewhere" that pulsated with emotion. Green also delivered a patriotic "America" that never sounded lustier or more dynamic.

Green followed this with a work of another American treasure, Richard Rodgers: "The Carousel Waltz," from the 1945 classic musical.

John Williams represented contemporary American composers with "Suite for Orchestra" from Star Wars. The orchestra delivered a fascinating "Darth Vader's Theme," a lush stringed version of "Princess Leia's Theme" and a rip-roaring, wondrous "Star Wars Theme."

The least-known featured American composer was Arthur Foote, whose Suite in E major for String Orchestra was another highlight, particularly in the pizzicato section, during which every stringed instrument from violin to cello to bass was plucked.

Another 20th century American voice, that of Aaron Copland, was featured in "Corral Nocturne" and "Hoe Down," both from Rodeo.

Green returned to 1956 for William Schuman's "Chester" from his New England Triptych. Green explained that this music was Schuman's tribute to composer William Billings, a patriot of the Revolutionary War era who waited until paper could be produced in America to publish his New England Song Sampler, which became an essential part of American church services.

Green ended the program traditionally with march king John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," which had the audience rhythmically clapping and reached a crescendo when the entire brass section stood to play.

Thunderous applause followed from the audience of about 3,500, nearly all of them standing. At the second curtain call, a triumphant Green led the orchestra in an encore, a lightning tempo rendition of John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare."

The audience remained standing and applauding, and when Green motioned for the orchestra to rise again, the musicians remained seated, allowing Green to acknowledge the applause alone. Once again Green left the stage only to return a final time to acknowledge the audience's applause. It seems Washington knows what we in Annapolis have always known: Ernie Green puts his heart into everything he does and gets a huge response from his musicians and audiences.

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