Review: ‘National Symphony Orchestra: Season Opening Gala Concert’ at the Kennedy Center

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In a political season where talk of building walls sometimes trumps the optimism of building bridges, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named in honor of a President whose civil rights advances built bridges to freedom, joined in celebrating the opening of the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in a gala concert that opened the National Symphony Orchestra’s (NSO) 86th season. And in the words of Jeanne Ruesch, NSO Board Chair, who welcomed a packed Concert Hall on Sunday evening, “To continue to bring great music to the nation’s capital”.

Maestro Christoph Eschenbach. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Maestro Christoph Eschenbach. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Under the direction of Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, NSO Music Director and Music Director of The Kennedy Center in his seventh and final season, and Steven Reineke, NSO Principal Pops conductor, this auspiciously joyful concert paid full tribute to the diversity that is America.

Conductor Steven Reineke. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Conductor Steven Reineke. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Every element of this incredible program was filled with musical lyricism as well as cultural symbolism expressed through orchestral arrangements evocative of the epic grandeur of an American story.

Antonin Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture, Op. 92,” the opening piece was classically orchestral, but the grandiloquence of this masterpiece symbolically linked Old World traditions to the present and the future as the NSO’s musical virtuosity gave voice to feelings of  melancholia, turbulence, dramatic conflict, emotional longing, romantic charm,  triumphant expectation and ultimately “optimism and a renewed sense of hope.”

Lang Lang. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Lang Lang. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Lang Lang, named the “hottest artist on the classical planet” by The New York Times joined the NSO for Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor,’ Op. 1.  Emotive and passionate, Lang Lang spoke from the heart through the hands of a master pianist expressing with dramatic fervor the dolor and nuanced sensitivity, quiet elegance,  alacrity and  power of Rachmaninoff ‘ s  Vivace, Andante and Allegro vivace  movements, supported by the perfect symbiosis of the NSO’s masterful musicianship.  Lang Lang, a Chinese immigrant, was a thoughtful addition to the artists chosen to perform in this concert celebrating cultural diversity.  He is a United Nations Messenger of Peace and through his dedication to bring the arts to children around the world, has created the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. His performance befitted the multicultural mood of the evening with its many-faceted colors

After a brief intermission, the remainder of the concert highlighted musical contributions of African Americans to the cultural landscape of America themed to commemorate the celebratory weekend opening of the NMAAHC.  Every artist brought a unique flavor to create a tapestry of musical experiences. We were in for a real treat as the composer of Fanfare on “Amazing Grace,” Adolphus Hailstork, was in the audience and stood to take a bow after the NSO wonderfully conveyed the spiritual joy heard and felt in his new work.  Grand and sweeping with a strong percussive quality, this piece was perfectly suited to the occasion and left one with a progressive sense of marching forward.

The lyrics to “Bridges” by jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, was sung to a Brazilian beat. A six-time Grammy Award nominee, Nneena spoke to the times as she la-la-ed the audience to sing along to these hope-filled words:

There’s a bridge to tomorrow
There’s a bridge from the past
There’s a bridge made of sorrow
That I pray will not last
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I think that there must be
Bridges made out of love

In today’s turbulent times, Nneena was in the moment as she added classy verve to an oldie popularized by Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughn with her crystal clear voice and warm expression. Connections and links were felt throughout the evening and Nneena Freelon’s husband, Phil Freelon, was a lead architect in the construction of the NMAAHC, deepening ties to the commemoration.

Nneena Freelon. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Nneena Freelon. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

She followed with “Black Butterfly,” a Duke Ellington classic, sung soft and smooth and gliding like the beautiful winged creature embellished by gentle scatting and flitting to a tender crescendo close.

Take 6. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Take 6. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Take 6, who are 10-time Grammy Awardees, took the stage and mesmerized with their trademark a cappella excellence in “Straighten Up and Fly Right” a Nat King Cole jazz number. Claude McKnight, Mark Kibble, Joel Kibble, Dave Thomas, Alvin Chea, and Khristian Dentley have been on the musical scene since Take 6’s inception in 1988. The group projects a vocally rich six-part harmony and they are part of a totally talented and musical family of sisters and brothers who play instruments and can sing to the high heavens.

“Bless this House” lent a contemporary tempo to an old gospel tune. I could actually feel the vibration of Take 6’s harmonic voices from where I sat and the stringed beauty of the NSO’s accompaniment made a very precious song come fully alive. It was a splendid moment to,“Bless all of this and the auspicious weekend of the NMAAH opening,” as one of Take 6’s members proudly spoke to the audience.

Finger-popping to “Smile” and accompanied again by the versatile NSO, Take 6 deftly used their voices like percussive and wind instruments in a playfully creative metaphor of this classic tune made famous my none other than Charlie Chaplin.  There was a lot to smile about during this wonderful concert and the momentous occasion that it marked.

Brian McKnight. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Brian McKnight. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Enter Brian McKnight, internationally and domestically renowned singer, songwriter and musical producer. Brian is also the kid brother of Claude McKnight of Take 6. Musical genes and artistic genius haven’t skipped a beat in this musical family. Brian McKnight not only sings but also plays the piano and eight other instruments. He reminded me of a combination of the best of the smoothest Nat King Cole overlaid with the soulful dynamism of Stevie Wonder. Of course McKnight is his own fantastic talent garnering 16 Grammy Award nominations and 16 albums he has produced over the past 20 years.   Cool as a cuke with a mellow voice that can charm forever, Brian’s “When I Fall in Love” was Prince Charming dreamy.  And he sang  “Back at One”, a chart-topping hit that he wrote himself,  playfully telling the men in the audience to go ahead and “plagiarize the words” because they work every the time when trying to woo the ladies.  I fully agreed.  Accompanied by the NSO and strong on violin strings, this is a beautiful love ballad that exudes all of the romantic elements of a timeless classic.

The final performance in this star-studded concert was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Steven Reineke, Principal Pops Conductor, in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Five-Time Grammy Award winner and 10-time Grammy Award Nominee, Mervyn Warren, accomplished film and television composer, songwriter and producer did the honors premiering “We Are All America” with orchestral interpretation.

Connecting the links again, Mervyn was one of the original members of Take 6 for more than a decade. Talent was definitely in the house of the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for this splendiferous affair. Warren’s commissioned work was a tapestry of musical genres woven with golden musical threads from African folk tales and the moving rhythm of the African drum, contemporary strains of uniquely American anthems, Broadway jazz, bluesy funk intertwined with diverse classical flavors that unify into one stupendous whole. Such is the American tapestry and Mervyn Warren’s genius captured America’s multicultural essence in one smashing musical creation.

National Symphony Orchestra Christoph Eschenbach Music. Director Photo by Scott Suchman.
National Symphony Orchestra Christoph Eschenbach Music. Director Photo by Scott Suchman.

Onstage to bring the concert to a  close  were all of the artists of the evening joined by the musical artistry of the Steven Ford Singers (Siblings Deborah Ford, Michelle Ford-Johnson, Vanessa Williams, Carolyn Moses,  Shanelle Ford, Courtney Coleman, Syreeta Ford-Lawrence ) and Director Steven Ford. The Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir and guest vocalists from the Children’s Chorus of Washington, DC under the direction of Michele Fowlin and Stanley J. Thurston also added youthful energy and a view toward the future culminating an evening to be remembered.

The repeated refrain of “We Are All America” is:

We are all Americans
One Team
Indivisible
 One Dream

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts did a good work promoting the best of this nation’s highest ideals “using the arts to bring our nation together” through this triumphant NSO season opening gala concert event.

And the after-party was a blast!

Gala Chairperson Jeanne Ruesch and friends. Photo by Malcolm Barnes.
NSO Board Chair Jeanne Ruesch and friends. Photo by Malcolm Barnes.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.

The National Symphony Orchestra: Season Opening Gala Concert played for one-night-only on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to their upcoming events, go to their calendar.