Last night the National Symphony Orchestra debuted its eighty-forth season in The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, one of the most anticipated musical events of the year, with a delightful evening of music and appreciation featuring guest artists Joshua Bell and Kelli O’Hara.
The evening not only marks the beginning of the eighty-fourth season of the NSO and the forty-fourth year of it’s beautiful home, The Kennedy Center, but also a new beginning for the orchestra in its management and direction. This year marks the passing of the reigns from long-time NSO President Michael M. Kaiser to the new President, Ms. Deborah Rutter who, with renewed vigor and energy, looks to bring the NSO into the future of performing arts excellence.
Beginning with the traditional beautiful rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, conductor Maestro Christoph Eschenbach leads the NSO right into the first piece of the evening: Bernstein’s famous Overture to Candide. It encapsulates the essence of melodrama that is found in any opera, but is wholly its own in the pure American lilt that is distinctly Bernstein.
A frequent guest artist to the NSO, violinist Joshua Bell is a familiar face whose clean virtuosity and youthful artistry are fully lauded in every one of his appearances. This evening was certainly no exception, as Mr. Bell performed two impressive staples of violin repertoire, Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in A minor and Ravel’s Tzigane. The two pieces are a complement to one another, insofar as they are of different musical styles, and of different technical styles for the violinist. The first, Saint-Saens, highlights Mr. Bell’s beautiful sound through a distinguished melody that pulls from the first note to the last. The Ravel, in turn, is a beast of technicality, whose difficulty is familiar to any violinist who has attempted it. It begins with an aggressive solo lasting several minutes, played almost entirely on the lowest string, which falls into very rapid violin arpeggios upon orchestral entrance. The piece begins slowly but increases in speed to push headlong to its high-energy finale.
Post-intermission, the stage made way for the NSO as a Pops orchestra, and her exuberant conductor, Steven Reineke. The NSO Pops take the stage for the first time at an Opening Ball Concert, and to great success, for it highlights the other face of the NSO, acknowledges the full capacity of its musicians and the talents of both its great – albeit very different – conductors.
The NSO Pops is joined by guest soprano, the beautiful Kelli O’Hara. Ghosting in the footsteps of the first half, Ms. O’Hara opens with something from Bernstein’s Candide as well: “Glitter and be Gay.” A first verse lamenting of lost feminine honor quickly turns into its namesake, as Ms. O’Hara’s extremely versatile voice rolls through the ups and downs of the high “Ha ha!”s.
Maestro Reineke takes to piano accompaniment with first cellist David Hardy, in support of Ms. O’Hara’s vocals in the next piece, Flaherty and Ahrens’ “Something Beautiful”, a melodious and touching piece from the composers of the new musical Little Dancer, making its world premier at the Kennedy Center this season. Ms. O’Hara high sopranos become even more luscious as it turns to French for the next piece, a compilation of the famous French tune “Autumn Leaves” and Barry Manilow’s “When October Goes. The French theme continues into the final piece, of Edith Piaf’s famous “La Vie en Rose”. Ms. O’Hara is joined on stage once more by Joshua Bell, and their combined high melodies of solo violin and floating soprano in this much-loved song is the most moving experience of the concert, and a poignant mark of a new season’s beginning.
A perfect match of opening and close of each half; beginning with Bernstein, and ending in Ravel, the final piece is most appropriately Ravel’s La Valse for full orchestra. Maestro Eschenbach returns to his classical NSO to close the night with this haunting waltz that holds a touch of fantasy in its three-step melody.
The Eighty-Fourth Season Opening Ball Concert revealed itself to be a most satisfying performance, bringing a touch of the very best of the NSO in all its aspects: its classical and pops sides, its two wonderfully talented conductors, and beloved familiar guest artists in Joshua Bell and Kelli O’Hara. It is the mark of any successful concert that leaves us wanting for more, and gladly we don’t have to wait for long as the NSO season opens with great anticipation.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission.
The NSO Eighty-Fourth Season Opening Ball Concert was performed for one night only on Sunday evening, September 21, 2014 in The Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For tickets to future events, go to their calendar of performances.