Everyone wanted to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture this weekend — and those who didn’t appear at the Mall had their own ways of participating. Sunday saw two such showcases: one a deliberate homage to the museum, and well-meaning but perfunctory; the other only fortuitously scheduled for the same weekend, and absolutely stunning.
The well-meaning event was the opening gala of the National Symphony Orchestra’s season in the evening, complete with a festival dinner beforehand, fundraising to the tune of more than $1 million, and, mercifully, fewer speeches from the stage than usual, though poor Christoph Eschenbach did have to stand on the Kennedy Center stage and endure being spoken past, at, and about at the start of his final season as music director. For the last couple of years, the NSO has conceived its gala as a collaboration between the classical and pops sides of its programming. I’ve come to like this idea; that it didn’t work better this year was partly because both halves of the program tried something slightly outside the norm, and didn’t quite pull it off.
The classical half featured Lang Lang playing Rachmaninoff, common enough for an orchestra gala. The outside-the-norm part is that it was the Rachmaninoff First Concerto. I have grown to respect Lang Lang in his frequent appearances in Washington during Eschenbach’s tenure, but even he couldn’t pull off a concerto that is at the level of promising student work. It’s nice to hear something different at a gala, but that’s really the best thing I can say about it, and the orchestra didn’t play particularly well.
It was the second, pops half of the evening that represented the museum tribute, and here the problem was the opposite: an embarrassment of riches. Nnenna Freelon, an expressive jazz singer (who exultantly announced from the stage that her husband, Philip G. Freelon, was the lead architect on the African American Museum project), sang “Bridges” with exuberance and “Black Butterfly” with beauty. The vocal sextet Take 6, resonant though woefully overmic’d, joined her for Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” which the amplification kept from quite coming together, and went on to tighter renditions of “Bless This House” and “Smile.” Then Claude McKnight, one of the group’s founders, introduced his kid brother, Brian McKnight, the biggest star of the evening, who sang “When I Fall in Love” and “Back at One.”
It was an impressive array of talent. But none of the singers, paraded on- and offstage and backed up by the indifferent orchestra, had a chance to take hold and shine, and the result was a lumping together of different vocal genres, styles and personalities as if they were somehow equivalent — less celebrating the diversity of African American culture than, however inadvertently, repressing it. The finale was, at least, invigorating: Called “We Are All America,” it was commissioned for the occasion from Mervyn Warren. He made the best of a tough assignment by writing something appealing and rousing for all the singers, plus the Steven Ford Singers, with the Washington Performing Arts Children of the Gospel Choir in the chorus seats above for good measure.
The afternoon saw the Phillips Collection open its own concert season with its own African American celebration — this one in honor of two upcoming exhibitions opening at the museum next month, including Jacob Lawrence’s complete “Migration” series. It is conjecture on my part to say that Denyce Graves, the acclaimed mezzo-soprano, was inspired by the museum’s opening, but it is simple fact to say that she gave a riveting and powerful performance, at once a tribute to African American artists and a kind of musical autobiography. She was moving, she was funny, she was beautiful, she sang with such perfect diction that every word of this English-language program came through, and she imbued every single thing she sang with meaning and emotion. She offered much that was unexpected: three striking songs by Harry Burleigh, Dvorak’s protege, who couldn’t get his own work published in the United States because he was black, and an aria from Douglas Cuomo’s operatic version of “Doubt” that she sang with such dramatic power it made me want to see the whole piece. And she made the familiar wholly compelling, from a Gershwin medley to a set of spirituals in which she followed an achingly powerful “Deep River” with a laugh-out-loud performance of “Scandalize My Name.”
I have heard Graves only on the opera stage. In the intimate space of the Phillips’s music room, her voice was warm and vibrant and exquisitely modulated, and she delivered her whole program with such sensitive artistry that there was no occasion to notice any vocal flaws, ably supported by the pianist Laura Ward. Having been sharply critical of this singer in the past, I was humbled to find her such a magnificent recitalist. Even her three encores were personal and distinctive, including a tribute that Michael Tilson Thomas wrote for Leonard Bernstein, and, finally, Ernest Charles’s “When I Have Sung My Songs.” But her scheduled program was framed by the kind of moving patriotism that characterized the festivities at the museum as well. She began with “America the Beautiful” and “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me)” (in which the line “The right to speak my mind out” has carried a poignancy in the mouth of a black singer since Paul Robeson sang it in concert) and progressed to a song called “American Anthem” by Gene Scheer, which, Graves observed, she had sung for both the Clintons and the Bushes when they were in office, making it “kind of bipartisan.” Would that every performance, in this challenging season, had such universal appeal.