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Pauline Lerner

Opening Night at the Kennedy Center

October 4, 2006 at 5:40 PM

I went to a gala concert at the opening night at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in late September. Of course, the jewel in the crown was Joshua Bell’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto (see my blog of 9/27/06), but the rest of the evening was interesting, too. The program was all Tchaikovsky and included Marche Slav, vocal duets from Romeo and Juliet, excerpts from Eugene Onegin, the Violin Concerto, and the 1812 Overture.

The concert was billed as the Season Opening Ball Concert, so I expected to see elegantly costumed couples dancing to music by the NSO (National Symphony Orchestra), like the pictures I’ve seen of New Year’s Ball with Karajan conducting and couples waltzing to music by Strauss. I didn’t see any dancing, but I did see a lot of women dressed in evening gowns and men dressed in tuxedos. Other people were dressed less formally, so I didn’t feel too out of place in my most elegant second hand clothes, donated to me by a friend just two days before the concert. Before the concert, there were free, small size samples of some Starbucks concoction, and during the intermission, there were free glasses of champagne for everyone, even those of us in the cheapest seats in the house (peasants’ heaven).

Before the concert started, I looked at some video displays about John F. Kennedy. He made such a strong impression on me and, probably, every American alive during his Presidency, 1960-1963. He embodied many dreams and ideals for millions of people. One of the striking things about him was that he was only 43 when he became President. At that time, I was 12 years old, and 43 did not seem young to me. Now when I look at his photos, I marvel at his youth. He spoke with such strong moral conviction about the issues of the day, and what he said rang true for many of us, in sharp contrast to today’s politicians. Those were the days of the Cold War, when people were terrified of annihilation by nuclear bombs in a war between Democracy and Communism. One of the video displays showed Kennedy talking with Khruschchev, the leader of Communist Russia, who looked terribly threatening, in Berlin. In the next scene, Kennedy told Americans that, “nothing has changed, not in substance, not in spirit.” The scenes of Kennedy fighting for racial equality, citing moral imperatives, were very moving. When I saw the video of Martin Luther King at the massive Civil Rights rally in 1963 saying, “I have a dream…,” I cried. Now I know that Kennedy did some things I don’t like – getting us deeper into Cuba and Vietnam – but the dream survives.

I was bidden into the concert hall by some live music by a brass ensemble, including works by Purcell and other baroque composers. The musicians were standing to the right and left of the NSO’s conductor, Leonard Slatkin, on the balcony just outside the first tier seats of the Concert Hall. I went up to look and listen to them. They sounded wonderful, but I also remembered the advice I’ve heard recently about using ear plugs when listening to performances or playing in rehearsals.

I took my seat in peasants’ heaven (second tier seat) and watched the orchestra before they started to play. In honor of Opening Night, the women in the orchestra were dressed in long formal gowns instead of their usual concert attire. The configuration of the orchestra was like that of Mozart’s time, with the first and second violins on the left and right of the conductor, respectively. I like that arrangement as both a member of the audience and a second violinist. I was glad to see that both the concertmistress and the principal second violinist were women. Before the concert began, Slatkin spoke briefly to the audience. He said that we were going to have an unusual experience – listening to a performance of the 1812 Overture indoors. He told us not to worry because the orchestra had consulted extensively with the fire department. His words were prophetic.

When I learned that some vocal arrangements of music from Romeo and Juliet were on the program, I was skeptical. I generally don’t like people tinkering too much with beautiful music. Then I read that Tchaikovsky himself had started to write vocal arrangements of his Romeo and Juliet, and the work was continued by others after his death. The vocal duets were beautiful. They were very much in keeping with the instrumental version and even more romantic. The excerpts from Eugene Onegin were from two of the most beloved, lyrical, and emotionally dramatic parts of the opera: the letter aria and Lensky’s aria, and the performances were both very moving.

I must admit that I had a bad attitude towards the 1812 Overture. I figured that it was flashy, showy music incorporated into the program to attract an audience of wealthy people who knew nothing about classical music. That may be true, but Sladkin’s arrangement, although very showy, was very, very good musically. Some aspects of the performance were unusual. There were singers – a small ensemble of male singers dressed in full military attire in box seats to the right and left of the stage. They were rousing good. The orchestra itself was augmented with extra bass viol players, as well as extra brass and percussionists, and I thought more seriously about earplugs. The cannons went off just behind and above the orchestra, and I watched somewhat nervously as the smoke hung in the air in front of the organ pipes from the time the cannons were fired until the end of the performance. I looked more closely, using my opera glasses, at the box seats with the singers, and noticed, on one side, a sound crew and, on the other side, some firemen. The performance was unusually moving, and the vocalists contributed substantially to the effects. I felt the stirrings of patriotic pride to the fatherland – Russia – and wondered what Kennedy would have thought of this. Perhaps it was a tribute to the power and universality of music. The performance ended with a cascade of brilliantly colored streamers from more box seats onto the audience in the orchestra seats. The performance was showmanship, but it was also very good music.

Joshua Bells’s performance of the Tchaikovsky was radical artistry. For details, see my blog of 9/27/06.

The opening night gala concert was exciting and beautiful in many ways. We must be in for a good season.

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