The National Symphony Orchestra started a three-part festival Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that has a veritable medley of ambitions.
“NEW MOVES: symphony + dance” (the typography is presumably intended to be significant) is, first of all, devoted to bringing together two art forms. Each program involves one or more pieces choreographed and danced by a contemporary American company. Wednesday’s program, for instance, featured two pieces by Larry Keigwin; they were danced by his Keigwin + Company to works by Leonard Bernstein.
But dance is only part of what NEW MOVES seems to want to be. It’s devoted to American music, which, if not all “new,” is certainly recent, written in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The festival also spotlights orchestra members, two of whom, in the course of the three programs, are featured soloists in instrumental concertos. (On Wednesday, the featured soloist was the bassoonist Sue Heineman, who gave the local premiere of a bassoon concerto by Marc Neikrug that was co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the NSO.)
Those elements add up to a lot of good things, not all of which necessarily come together neatly or altogether coherently — the American music aspect, for example, seems like icing on this particular cake. The main issue, given that the festival is predicated on a fusion of music and movement, is how those ingredients are brought together.
But the festival isn’t offering any particularly new solution to this question — it isn’t conceived in any way that would allow it to do so. What you got Wednesday, at least, was a normal first half of a concert — prefacing the Neikrug piece with William Schuman’s once-familiar, now-forgotten “New England Triptych” — and a second half with straight choreography danced in front of the orchestra. It might represent a variation on a regular orchestra concert, but it’s not a significant variation on the presentation of either music or dance (at least, it wasn’t Wednesday). That isn’t to say it was bad — just that it had the sense of an anomaly.
The greatest artistic challenge is faced by the conductor of all three programs, Thomas Wilkins, who had to lead a lot of sometimes unfamiliar and sometimes tricky music (he joked about how heavy his luggage was with all the scores he had brought). Wilkins brought a certain elegant, authoritative competence to the podium, if not quite the ability to get the orchestra fully into line. The opening Schuman is wholesome music in a bygone American vein, and Wilkins delineated it in strong strokes.
The Neikrug concerto is a collection of wandering phrases, starting with a movement that features juxtapositions of ascending bassoon lines and descending orchestral lines (and vice versa), and that moves on to the requisite slow movement, followed by the requisite rapid one, without ever quite taking hold of the qualities of timbre and incision for which it seems to be groping.
The potential for the bassoon — with its autumnal, chewy sound — to be an expressive communicator is tremendous, but this piece, and perhaps this soloist, relied more on the evocative power of that sound than on doing anything deeply compelling with it.
The evening roused, after the break, with the Bernstein, because Bernstein’s athletic syncopations have a way of rousing an orchestra — and because the six Keigwin dancers came running out on stage, adding a jolt of color and energy. Forbidden by the Bernstein estate actually to refer to the stories of either work — three dance episodes from “On the Town,” followed by a suite from “On the Waterfront” — Keigwin resorted to athletic, aestheticized abstraction, with somewhat conventional romanticized movement in the first piece (boy lifts girl, girl flutters legs a bit), and a contrasting exploration of conflict in the second (lots of pushing and physical deadlock as an expression of the big fierce passages).
Keigwin apparently specializes in a comfortable vernacular approach to ballet-derived movement, which became most interesting when it was least conventionally attractive, the dancers suddenly contorting into slightly angular but rubbery gestures, like Gumby dolls.
“Waterfront,” the second piece, was the larger and more ambitious, and culminated, refreshingly, by resisting the kinds of neat pairings that are usually the default visual resolution to musical climax. At the moment when the music began massing toward its final explosion, Keigwin lined the dancers across the stage, each involved in repeated movements that were tangentially related to each other but involved no physical contact — a far better expression of what was happening among the instrumentalists behind them than, say, the more graceful two-man pas de deux that came earlier in the piece.
And at the end, rather than offering any kind of visual synthesis or pose as conclusion, Keigwin revisited the conflict motifs before sending the dancers running raggedly offstage. It was a refreshing close that, perhaps unwittingly, also seemed to echo the program as a whole: a collection of bodies rather than a graceful arabesque.
The program repeats Thursday night. The festival continues through May 18.