A couple of "M" words that have to go: millennium and minimalism. Both colored last night's National Symphony Orchestra opening subscription concert at the Kennedy Center concert Hall. But the music prevailed, despite fatigue with the former and the elusiveness of the latter.
Even NSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin confessed that the first performance of the penultimate concert season of the century was only nominally about the millennium and that he was a bit tired with the whole concept anyway. And his program--music of Ravel, Adams, Britten and Mozart--makes clear two things we all know about this end-of-millennium conceit: It's really just a great way to market the 20th century. Mozart snuck in, according to Slatkin, because he had a big impact over the past 100 years. Undeniable, but a bit of a reach.
If "millennium" is an obnoxious word, "minimalism" is downright pernicious. The major work on last night's program, John Adams's "Century Rolls," is not a minimalist composition. It is not by a minimalist composer. If asked to describe it, most listeners would probably note its busyness, its dense references to the past, its complexity. Yet given how promiscuously the word minimalism is applied these days--properly it describes a relatively small number of "set up the machine and let it run" works from the '60s and '70s--it will very likely get stamped with the label. Even Slatkin had to sidestep it in his remarks to the audience.
"Century Rolls," from 1997, was new to the orchestra. It is, in essence, a piano concerto (performed last night by the pianist who premiered it, Emanuel Ax) that uses a few repeated rhythmic devices as a prism through which to examine the past. Adams loves wordplay, and has named the second movement "Manny's Gym," suggesting a slightly ludicrous image of the pianist (known as "Manny") grunting through reps on the Pec Blaster. But the real reference is to Satie's fluid little character pieces, the "Gymnopedies." This double take, a first impression of muscularity followed by something very French, describes the work as a whole, especially in this luminous, transparent reading by Ax and the NSO.
Slatkin balanced the Adams with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, again with Ax as soloist. The Mozart, with its offbeat opening accompaniment figures, seemed both of a piece with the Adams and yet in many ways even more minimal--in La Monte Young's sense of the term as making music with the least means possible. Appropriately, Ax said more with less, especially in the opening Allegro, which was tender, delicate and retiring.
Benjamin Britten's "American Overture" (written in America but not American, lost for decades and almost repudiated by the composer) and Ravel's "La Valse" opened and closed the program, respectively. They work well together: Both build continuously to a conclusion that then colors the meaning of the whole piece. The orchestra played them brilliantly.