I heard a lot of invigorating and unusual orchestral music this week. The Shift festival of American orchestras, which finished its second iteration on Saturday night, is a confusing and well-meaning event that tries to showcase creativity in the field by presenting four American orchestras in a range of performances, in and out of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. But the bottom line: Good music is good, and I was glad to have more of it.
To experience Shift the way joint presenters Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center conceived the festival, music lovers could have ranged the length and breadth of the city over the course of the week: to Union Station for the National Symphony Orchestra, to Southwest’s arts club Blind Whino for the Albany Symphony’s new-music ensemble; to THEARC in Southeast to hear the Fort Worth Symphony’s wonderful bilingual “Peter and the Wolf,” with dancers from the Texas Ballet Theater.
(For the record, my 6-year-old son, who can be a hard sell, was riveted by “Peter and the Wolf” and gave it an emphatic thumbs-up.)
After the Fort Worth Symphony’s opening concert (which I reviewed last week), the Albany Symphony under David Alan Miller showed its bent for new music with 2 1/2-hour program that included three concertos by established American composers: Joan Tower, with her contrasting piano concert “Still/Rapids”; Michael Torke, with his muscular, intense, yet somehow slightly anodyne “Three Manhattan Bridges” (with Joyce Yang the impressive pianist in both); and Michael Daugherty, whose mellifluous tuba concerto “Reflections on the Mississippi” has become a showpiece for the remarkable tuba player Carol Jantsch. Arguably stealing the show, though, was an endearing piece for youth chorus and orchestra about the Erie Canal, which filled the stage with Washington-area kids singing wholeheartedly.
The Indianapolis Symphony showcased music by composers from Poland, the native land of its music director,Krzysztof Urbanski, who was authoritative in this outing with his home orchestra. Lutoslawski’s thorny cello concerto featured the star cellist Alisa Weilerstein, whose hyperexpressivity wins over audiences even in complicated repertoire; but the real showpiece was the Credo by Krzysztof Penderecki, a rousing and powerful work in the grand classical tradition, complete with trumpets in the balcony, and yet anchored in the present, that should enter the repertories of some of Washington’s symphonic choruses.
The NSO made an odd addition to the lineup. The orchestra contributed energetically to the festival’s community initiatives, offering a version of its annual NSO in your Neighborhood program with the Union Station performance, a concert at the Central Union Mission and several other events. But as the festival’s final and culminating act, it was anticlimactic to have the home orchestra playing in its regular hall.
The concert was to have featured the orchestra’s music director, the Italian Gianandrea Noseda, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the great Russian baritone who died in November. Instead it was offered in Hvorostovsky’s memory, continuing the theme of Italian-Russian friendship by presenting Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” (arrangements of pieces by Italian composers) and two arrangements by Italian composers of Russian pieces — Casella’s version of Balakirev’s “Islamey,” and Respighi’s orchestration of five of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux. But it wasn’t clear that this showed anything essential about the NSO and its mission — or anything new in a festival that was about innovation.
It was, however, very interesting to hear the NSO in the context of this festival. In comparison to the other orchestras, the NSO was clearly the strongest musically, in terms of the quality of the individual players and the lushness of the overall ensemble. It was good to be reminded of the orchestra’s basic quality. And yet the NSO was also the weakest, particularly in the small ensemble of “Pulcinella,” which, although it showcased some of the strong playing — Aaron Goldman’s flute, Nurit Bar-Josef’s singing violin — also exposed some surprising and glaring weaknesses of ensemble, despite Noseda’s fluid, easy conducting. The piece never really came together.
Certainly the energy and commitment of the smaller orchestras offered a rare and perhaps unique chance to perform on this national stage, made for a greater electricity during their performances — even allowing for the familiarity that I feel as someone who hears the NSO in this hall almost every week. Shift certainly met one goal: celebrating the work of some orchestras that don’t always get the limelight. The festival is taking next year off to consider how its approach is working before returning for its next iteration in 2020.