Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Nostalgia filled the air Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall - beautifully formed and artistically controlled nostalgia for a world that few in the audience could ever have lived in but all could feel in their bones. It was the National Symphony Orchestra's premiere performance of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" - and about time, too, since the work has been an American classic for more than a quarter-century.
Under the baton of guest conductor Moshe Atzmon, the orchestra and soprano Phyllis Curtin evoked a warm peaceful evening, a family sitting quietly on the back lawm talking aimlessly against a muted background of insect noises, and an adolescent boy (one assumes it is a boy, though the soloist is a soprano, because James Agee wrote the text) wondering silently about his identity.
The music is magic, sheer magic - one of the finest compositions Barber has written and a work that typifies and exalts his particular genius. It is so evocative that a good performance (this one was good, though it could have been better) leaves you ready to swear you have been there, sitting in the warm darkness of long ago.
Performances later this week may improve in fine details of phrasing and particularly in the balance which sometimes buried Curtin's voice in the orchestral texture. Her interpretation is warm and intelligent; one might wish for more richness on a few high notes but not if it meant using another singer.
The program opened with Hindemith's brilliant, colorful Symphonic Metamorphoses, very brightly played (with special kudos to the tympanist, who sometimes made it sound like a drum concerto). Beethoven's "Eroica" was also well done, despite some uncertainties in the horn section in the scherzo.