'An American Playlist' wraps up with NSO, John Mayer, Smokey Robinson and more

CENTER STAGE: Harolyn Blackwell sings as Hugh Wolff conducts the NSO.
CENTER STAGE: Harolyn Blackwell sings as Hugh Wolff conducts the NSO. (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The title "An American Playlist" wants to signal a touch of cool. We at the Kennedy Center -- where the title denoted a three-day celebration of the end of President Michael M. Kaiser's 50-state, 14-month Arts in Crisis tour -- are in tune with the times. Playlists today are a way to group disparate elements with an underlying sense of individual authorship.

Tuesday night's final concert, though, appeared to be set on Shuffle. It offered a bunch of stuff, oddly juxtaposed.

Shuffle is a perfectly legitimate way to hear music these days, and the stuff juxtaposed here was pretty decent. The problem with the concept was that the National Symphony Orchestra was onstage, and anytime you put an orchestra together with such artists as Smokey Robinson or John Mayer, you risk taking great music and turning it into crossover schlock. The orchestra starts functioning as merely a symbol of class, spreading goopy lushness over the music without really showing what it can do, and tightening up the performers a bit with the sense of occasion.

"I feel like you can't throw guitar picks at the Kennedy Center," Mayer observed, before handing one over to an audience member with an elegant, even courtly flourish.

When the orchestra was on its own, it showed its stuff pretty well. Led by Hugh Wolff, the fine, adroit and energetic conductor who began his career in 1979 as an assistant, and then associate, conductor of the NSO, they bracketed the program with John Adams's "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and Michael Daugherty's "Route 66" -- the Adams popping with syncopations as taut as breaking rubber bands, the Daugherty setting up a beat of metallic percussion and then sending angular string patterns sprawling down it like daddy longlegs. Wolff kept the orchestra (rounded out with a notable number of substitutes) on a short rein, and the crowd was gratifyingly enthusiastic.

Wolff also conducted Milhaud's "Scaramouche," originally a two-piano work that here, with orchestra, became a mini-concerto in a kaleidoscopic pattern of popular idioms. The saxophone soloist, Branford Marsalis -- who also performed in and hosted the previous night's "Playlist" -- conferred, on the whole, a torch-song air.

The baton passed to Sarah Hicks, who seemed a strikingly assured conductor, on this slender evidence, for the lighter stuff: opera soprano Harolyn Blackwell's renditions of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "O mio babbino caro" (not exactly an American classic), sung with a mike that helped smooth over the loss of size and color at the top of her voice, and Mayer's version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," by Bob Dylan.

Mayer, who had just finished "Waiting on the World to Change" with no accompaniment beyond his own guitar, summed up Dylan's song. "One man, one guitar. And tonight, one orchestra. We need to get children together with orchestras," he riffed, encouraged by the crowd's laughter. "One orchestra for every child, is what I say."

It was a funny moment. It also continued another theme of the evening, which was a prevailing sense of uncertainty about what Kaiser had actually been doing on this tour, and a general idea that it had to do with arts education. (Actually, Kaiser's main focus was on arts administrators, but it's all good.)

"I urge you all to do whatever we can do to get arts back in our schools," said the enduringly wonderful Smokey Robinson, after striking a blow in the name of art with "Don't Know Why," the Norah Jones hit that's on his latest CD, showing a soft, malleable voice that grips the pavement with a slight rasp at emotional climaxes. He then offered "Tracks of My Tears," building from an intimate opening to a full-throttle, no-strings-left-behind climax with caterwauling backup singers. He made it work just fine.

Rounding out the offerings on the 80-minute program were some actual American youths: the NEWorks tribute singers, local high school and college students who offered "Life's Inspired by a Song," a paean to arts education written by their director, the Rev. Nolan Williams, that was well-meaning and bright-eyed and so cheesy that the audience, though wanting to like it, couldn't even be prevailed upon to clap along.

Youth is the sign of the future, but experience tells -- and Tuesday night, it was the oldest singer, Robinson, who was the biggest highlight.

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