Few of the younger listeners at the National Symphony Orchestra's "Written in My Soul" concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night were likely to have heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. make speeches in the '60s. But a few minutes hearing Yolanda King echo the fire and zeal of her father's words at this African American musical tribute was enough to pitch anyone back into the streets of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Ala. -- whether they had been there or not.
"Martin Luther King: A Spiritual Journey" was a collection of King's most poignant speeches read over muted strings that culminated in a rousing chorus of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Clearly the highlight of the evening, it might have sounded gauche had it not been so heartfelt. But Yolanda King spoke with passion, the NSO played with brio and affiliate artist conductor Randall Craig Fleischer drew the two elements into a cogent and touching confluence.
The rest of the program -- most of which will be repeated Monday and Friday mornings next week -- was quite compelling, albeit for reasons of musical integrity if not pungency. Copland's dynamic "Lincoln Portrait," narrated by Yolanda King with resounding verve, was almost the equal of "Spiritual Journey." King brought a real sense of historic weight to her delivery, and the NSO matched her conviction with playing that was as sensitive as it was luminous.
Other selections celebrating the influence of African American culture upon the symphonic literature were engaging but lacked the intensity of their spoken counterparts.
While Morton Gould's "American Salute" was a musical storm-setting of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" missed its witty, urbane mark. Dvorak's "Largo" from his "New World" Symphony is hard to misread, but here, Fleischer's pianissimos sounded dispassionate rather than warm.
Solo pianist Jennifer Hayghe glimpsed the spirit of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" -- even if there was more method than abandon to her playing and more purpose than pizazz. Fleischer, however, led the NSO in a sure-footed reading of the full orchestral score that Gershwin never heard.