Art gives us new perspectives and leads us to see things in different ways. I confess I didn’t expect Wednesday night’s concert at the Kennedy Center to do either: A centerpiece of the culminating week of John F. Kennedy Centennial celebrations, it featured the National Symphony Orchestra playing an all-American concert that started with Copland (“Fanfare for the Common Man,” no less) and ended with Bernstein. Sound familiar? Well, it wasn’t. And kudos to the Kennedy Center for managing to make something distinctive and thoughtful out of what could have been yet another forgettable commemorative JFK concert.
The best thing about the program was not that it offered a brand-new piece, but that it brought out some old ones that I’ll bet almost nobody in the audience knew — and showed us that they were worth hearing. The Copland was followed with a piece by William Grant Still, a contemporary of Copland’s whose music was much-played in the United States at midcentury and is now shockingly neglected. His “Poem” for orchestra proved a dark and restless piece that moved through complex tangles of sound to end up, for about the last third of its length, in a dark, sweet, Rachmaninoff-like melodic effusion, with a slight sardonic twist that kept it from resolving too patly.
And the centerpiece of the concert’s second half was a cello concerto that John Williams wrote for Yo-Yo Ma in 1994, played by Ma, whom the audience greeted with effusion. Classical music snobs love to look down their noses at Williams, and I did that for so long that I feel kind of stupid, at this point in my life, coming around to recognizing a talent that many people have lionized for so long. The concerto is a respectable piece of work and gave Ma lots of cadenzas and room to show his stuff while carrying the orchestra perhaps a few times too often up and down some unexpected paths. Its weakness is that it’s trying too hard to establish its street cred as the kind of “serious” music people like me don’t think Williams can write, and thus deliberately resists using the kind of melody at which Williams so excels. But then Bernstein’s “Three Dance Episodes from ‘On the Town,’ ” which followed, served as a reminder that Bernstein himself got endless grief during his lifetime for being too “light,” too “popular” — despite the fact that this music, briskly led by the appealing young conductor Joshua Weilerstein, sounded as bracing and vivid as if it had just been written.
All of this was good to hear, and I’d happily hear it again. But of course, the main event, in a way, was the new commission, called “Passage!”: the last link in a chain of what Weilerstein pointed out were the program’s four generations of American composers. Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, was commissioned with the daunting task of writing a new piece about Kennedy. Like the late Peter Lieberson in his soon-forgotten “Remembering JFK,” written for a past Kennedy Center JFK commemoration in 2011, Bates turned to Kennedy’s speeches; unlike him, he incorporated actual snippets of them, as recorded sound elements, interwoven with text from Walt Whitman’s “Passage to India,” beautifully sung by the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. “Passage!” focuses on exploration and legacy, new pathways to the moon echoed in Whitman’s thoughts on India — a good match for Bates’s forward-looking, computer-enhanced, slightly steampunk aesthetic, which carried the score back and forth from sweetly declamatory passages from Cooke to, at one climax, disco-club levels of sternum-vibrating loudness. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to integrate a famous person’s spoken recordings into a piece without making it feel like a documentary soundtrack, a purely commemorative work; but Bates gave it a good shot, down to Kennedy’s voice repeating “Time — time — time” at the end, while Cooke and the orchestra held out notes of unalloyed sweetness.
The result was a piece that felt as if it were looking back to the Kennedy era with a kind of wistful nostalgia. And, indeed, each piece on the program reflected, in its own way, something of the spirit of the second third of the 20th century, Kennedy’s era, with its bright brashness and optimism and sense of emerging from danger and possible dangers yet to be overcome. Furthermore, the Kennedy Center’s programmers and planners allowed this sense to stand as the evening’s main message: The concert avoided a lot of the celebratory fluff that all too often has accompanied such shindigs. Deborah Rutter, the center’s president, did acknowledge the members of the Kennedy family who were present, including JFK’s daughter, Caroline, and her daughter, Rose. But apart from that and some engaging remarks from Weilerstein about the program, there were no long speeches or lists of thank-yous to gala chairs. The focus, for once, was on the music — on actually commemorating, rather than talking about it.
The JFKC celebrations continue with, among other things, readings, performances and video footage on Monday, Kennedy’s actual birthday, at 4 p.m. The NSO will focus on the music of John Williams in an NSO Pops program on June 22.