Three pieces of music composed in the years around World War II can reveal not only the range of emotions inspired by world events, but also the ferment of musical styles in that era. This was the goal of an excellent program offered by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra on Sunday night, in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery, executed thoughtfully and with admirable precision.
Stravinsky’s Orchestral Concerto in E-flat came to be known by the name of the house where it was premiered, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, in 1938. The first movement bubbled along, the players adroitly avoiding the many possible pitfalls of shifting meter, the poky second movement animated by jabs of melody punctuated by bassoon bleats, jazzy bass syncopations and a chatty flute solo. The rhythmic procedure of the faster third movement — a regular pulse established by motoric repetitions, then disjointed by off-kilter accents — is not unlike the more famous passages in “The Rite of Spring,” made more suave by the composer’s turn toward neoclassical harmony.
Within a decade, in 1944, Aaron Copland premiered his ballet score “Appalachian Spring” at the Library of Congress, music that now encapsulates one vision America has of itself. Performed here in the original instrumentation, for a beautifully balanced group of 13 instruments, it had the feel of a Smithsonian exhibit of an American treasure, such as the Stars and Stripes or President Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, a piece of history one could grasp. Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet, premiered in 1946 and performed here in Rudolf Barshai’s chamber symphony arrangement, is much more brutal on the surface. But through vicious adversity and grief, it, too, reaches toward hope.
Conductor Kenneth Slowik, leading with businesslike gestures, coordinated the fine performances of his musicians, many of whom are principal players with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Downey is a freelance writer.