It takes a sly sense of humor to title a concert “Affirmations: A Musical Journey of Hope and Aspiration” — and then open it with Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to the sardonic, optimism-mocking “Candide.”
But the performance Friday night at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony Orchestra (with the superb a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock) quickly reverted to warm sincerity, showcasing music by composers — mostly African Americans — chosen to be “a confirmation of truth; a giant ‘Yes,’ if you will,” said guest conductor Thomas Wilkins.
Depending on your level of cynicism, that may sound like either a refreshing breath of air or a warning bell for smiley-faced banality. But Wilkins has a sure, imaginative touch at the podium and turned in sharp-edged readings of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s engaging “Danse Negre” and the radiantly beautiful “Adagio” movement from Adolphus Hailstork’s Symphony No.1.
Duke Ellington’s “King of the Magi” came off with fiery brilliance, while the fourth movement of William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1, titled “Aspiration,” was more meditative, embodying a sense of quiet, almost otherworldly calm.
The intriguing first half of the program, unfortunately, was not matched by the second half, which was devoted to the premiere of William C. Banfield’s Symphony No. 10: “Affirmations for a New World.” Written in collaboration with Sweet Honey in the Rock, it’s a display piece for that group’s extraordinary talents. But despite some fine singing, “Affirmations” never really took off. An odd muddle of jazz, oratorio and self-improvement book, it felt weighed down by musical cliches and lyrics so full of earnest, reach-for-the-stars vapidity they could have won a high school poetry contest. Does “affirmation” really have to be so blandly positive?
We went home, put on Eartha Kitt singing “I Want To Be Evil,” and felt much better.
Brookes is a freelance writer.