Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert

Christoph Eschenbach

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Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert Review

by Stephen Eddins

Remembering JFK includes two CDs, one of a 2011 concert commemorating the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and one of the original inaugural concert. The anniversary concert features Christoph Eschenbach leading the National Symphony in a program of Bernstein's Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Peter Lieberson's Remembering JFK, and Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. Lieberson's work, written for the occasion, like Copland's Lincoln Portrait, is an orchestral meditation floated under a recited text. Lieberson's score will probably not be remembered as one of his most significant works; it's a pleasantly lyrical Copland-esque piece but it doesn't have much of a sense of direction or the distinctive combination of visceral sensuality and intellectual rigor that characterizes his best work. Richard Dreyfuss' attempt at imitating Kennedy's voice doesn't do the piece any favors. The Bernstein and Gershwin pieces have a jazzy flavor and require a looseness and spontaneity that Eschenbach and the orchestra don’t quite achieve. Their performances aren't exactly stiff, but they certainly don't swing, and the level of energy in the Symphonic Dances is especially low; the orchestra just doesn't seem to be having any fun. Tzimon Barto is a distinguished soloist in the Gershwin, though.

More entertaining overall is the disc of excerpts from the January 19, 1961, inaugural concert. The entertainment value comes largely from the radio commentary, which provides a vividly You-Are-There description of the event, an amalgam of a stirring sense of history -- the step-by-step description of the Kennedys' grand entrance -- and the absurd -- an account of the blizzard that practically sabotaged the concert, blocking the delivery of the concert programs and making a number of musicians late, straggling in as the evening progressed, or entirely absent. A Vivaldi violin concerto had to be jettisoned because the soloist, Mischa Elman, was unable to get to the theater, and a movement from Randall Thompson's Testament for Freedom was performed with drastically reduced forces because the Men's Chorus of Howard University was stuck in a bus in the storm. The novelty of the evening was a piece commissioned for the celebration, From Sea to Shining Sea, by John La Montaine, who had won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize. An exceedingly weak work, it's notable primarily for the opportunity it gives the listener to marvel at the audacity of La Montaine's "borrowings" from Copland, Debussy, Brahms, and especially, Barber. The musical highlight is Rhapsody in Blue, to which pianist Earl Wild and the National Symphony under Howard Mitchell bring a rhythmic flexibility that's dizzyingly idiosyncratic but unmistakably effective, memorable, and fun. Wild's playing, at once brawny and subtly nuanced, makes the work sound brand new and is by itself worth the price of the disc.

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