NSO Pops: ‘Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers’ at The Kennedy Center

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It was an evening of American classics – from the pops program the National Symphony Orchestra played under the sure baton of Steve Reineke to the guest of honor himself, Steve Martin, winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and The Kennedy Center Honors, to name just the two awards he received in the building. He also won a Grammy Award for his first bluegrass album, The Crow.

The orchestra started off with Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down” from Rodeo. The Western theme continued with the theme from The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein and an early John Williams’ score for a John Wayne movie called The Cowboy. It features the big, emotional sound this orchestra excels at. Reineke added, “It’s Williams, so it’s wickedly hard.” He took almost as much delight in bantering with the audience as he did on the conductor’s stand, practically dancing through the numbers.

Violinists Alexandra Osborne and Glenn Donnellan soloed on “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Unger, the waltz best known as the unofficial soundtrack of Ken Burn’s documentary about the Civil War.  The quiet tone is the perfect contrast to the movie acrobatics.

The NSO closed the first half with a tribute to Steve Martin with the theme from The Pink Panther, featuring sunglasses wearing tenor saxophonist a , who coincidentally looks exactly like Inspector Clouseau.

Steve Martin took the stage for the second half to thunderous applause wearing an eggplant-colored suit and shiny sneakers. He cracked jokes throughout the evening – riffing on everything from Trump and the recent Speaker search to his own musicianship – but most of the focus was on the music. He launched into blazing fast banjo licks he composed himself for most of the evening backed by the Steep Canyon Rangers.

With nine albums released and Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, they’re not Martin’s band. He just drags them on tour with him occasionally to, as he says, “local honkytonk joints” like The Kennedy Center. They started playing together when they asked him to sit in while they played one of his songs and they all realized it was a match made in musical heaven. They played that first song again for the encore, “Me and Paul Revere” about the famous man’s horse.

Charles R Humphrey III on bass, Graham Sharp on banjo, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Nicky Sanders on violin, Woody Platt on guitar, and Michael Ashworth on everything else that produces a beat make up the band. They let loose on their hit “Blow Me Away” and Sanders and his violin went crazy on “Auden’s Train,” another Martin composition.

Martin soloed on “Daddy Played the Banjo,” a quieter song that proves a banjo is good for more than impressive riffs. He also played a piece from his new musical Bright Star, which will make its pre-Broadway premiere at The Kennedy Center in December.

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Martin told the audience that if anyone ever wrote banjo music, to be sure to have it played by the National Symphony Orchestra. There is a rumor that the violin and the fiddle are the same instrument and on this night it was great to see the whole string section fiddling away. It is also inspiring to see Martin breaking new ground even after he’s won almost every award for his acting, writing, and comedy. He took up the banjo at 17, which means at 70 he’s been playing for half a century. He only started performing about five years ago, however. The highlight of the concert was watching him and every musician onstage create that magical alchemy between extreme skill and deep passion for what they do. The result is pure magic on five strings.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

NSO Pops: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Kennedy Center has one more performance tonight, October 24, 2015 at 8 PM at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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