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The NSO's Salute to an All-American Trio

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C07

Nothing in music is more American than composers Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. It was fitting then that the National Symphony Orchestra focused on those pathfinders for its concert last night, which was part of the Kennedy Center's ongoing exploration of the arts in the United States during the 1940s. While the superb performance drew out the underlying European influence on each composer's music, what fueled the evening were the singular sounds that have become an inextricable part of the country's emotional fabric.

Throughout, Musical Director Leonard Slatkin subtly linked novel and more traditional material. Slatkin has put American music at the center of the NSO's artistic calling card, though he remains a passionate devotee of several French and Russian composers. The maestro seemed to understand the program intuitively, and the players responded with skill, intelligence and gusto.

Lynn Harrell's expressive playing brought out the warm lyricism of Barber's Cello Concerto, Op. 22. (Christian Steiner)

A blistering account of Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," opened the concert. Bernstein completed the work in 1942 at the tender age of 24, and its restless sound bespeaks the composer's relative youth. The ever-evolving music strives to paint grand ideas: crisis in faith, isolation and -- perhaps with the knowledge of the horrific events then occurring in Europe -- annihilation.

After the weighty opening movement, with piercing horn outbursts interrupting searing string melodies, the orchestra danced through the brilliant second movement. Percussive effects straight out of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler constantly leaped out of bustling textures.

The influence of Bernstein's hero also appeared in the Hebrew song of the finale, which draws words from the Book of Lamentations. The radiant mezzo-soprano Mary Phillips sang with a pleading ardor, fervently limning the texts with power and detail.

The dean of American cellists, Lynn Harrell, joined the orchestra for Barber's Cello Concerto, Op. 22. This engaging work has never achieved the popularity of the composer's piano and violin concertos or his Adagio for Strings. Barber completed the score in late 1945 after his military service in World War II, and the work's warm lyricism and generally quiescent air puts it in a different emotional realm from war and confrontation.

Harrell's artistry marries elegant restraint, a sensitive musical imagination and commanding technique. This experienced virtuoso drew out the plangent and more agitated passages in the outer movements, while his cello joined in magical conversation with the NSO woodwinds in the touching second movement Adagio.

The featured work of the evening, Copland's Symphony No. 3, is the musical equivalent of an Albert Bierstadt painting. Copland uses spacious textures, generous brass passages and gentle folk-inspired melodies to depict an idealized sonic picture of America. Finishing off the score in 1946, the composer hoped to capture the tragedies and triumphs of the nation's involvement in World War II. Though the score eventually founders under the sheer weight of its ambition, there were many eloquent moments in the NSO's gripping performance. The brass chorales of the finale, based on the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man," were golden and resplendent.

This sparkling all-American concert repeats tonight and tomorrow evening.

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