With this in mind and my mask and vaccination card in my jacket pocket, I headed to the Kennedy Center on Saturday night a little earlier than usual, only to discover 1,000 or so of my fellow concertgoers had gotten there a lot earlier than usual.
While one line formed in the Hall of Nations for an inconspicuously located set of vaccination verification stations, another one formed and snaked all the way down the Grand Foyer and back to the Concert Hall entrance — so, a quarter-mile. Staff members rushed to check vaccine cards and photo IDs of attendees who missed the stations (guilty!), scan tickets and apply wristbands — to every single attendee.
The wait to enter was long enough that, at one time, I forgot which direction I was facing. At five to the hour, an air of tempered tension hovered over the would-be audience, each of us dancing the slow sideward sway of a slow-going queue. I’m not going to lie: There were airport vibes. I found myself growing nostalgic for when people dressed up to fly and losing myself in daydreams of ways I might innovate this system. Now seating Group 5. Group 5, you are ready to be seated. An all-hands mission broke out to accelerate the process. National Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Gary Ginstling hustled past holding a bouquet of purple wristbands.
(For its part, the Kennedy Center reached out to attendees with ticket-voucher offers for future concerts and extended apologies across its social media platforms. “You deserved a better return to the Kennedy Center,” read a tweet from Sunday morning. “This will not happen again.”)
The recruitment of the B squad worked, and within 15 minutes, a storm of enthusiastic applause greeted the appearance onstage of guest conductor Thomas Wilkins, the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the music director of the Omaha Symphony.
After about 10 seconds, it became clear that we were also cheering for life in general, the accomplishment of this decidedly abnormal return to normal. People craned around in their seats to see all the people craning around in their seats, the loaded balconies and boxes. The lobby debacle was ancient history.
Unfettered by spatial restrictions and unencumbered by the partitions that became a pandemic fixture onstage, the NSO sounded both full and hungry. Ninety-three musicians plus Wilkins crowded the stage in a once-standard sight that, for a limited time, still qualifies as a spectacle.
Wasting no more time, the orchestra launched right into “Balance of Power” — a world premiere work by Los Angeles-based composer Peter Boyer, originally commissioned by the center and former U.S. ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter for the NSO’s 90th anniversary season, as well as the 95th birthday of the work’s unlikely inspiration, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Its first movement, “A Sense of History,” gleamed with horns and harps; soft, swelling strings; and curlicue flutes, before tightening into a more pugilistic mode, rumbling to a climax and resolving into somber shimmers. Its second, “A Sense of Humor (Scherzo politico),” played with a slapstick 7/8 rhythm, an indecisive upstairs-downstairs melody with some cello and bassoon punchlines to evoke Kissinger’s wit (by his own request, as no one said he was modest) and what Boyer describes in his extensive notes as his “famously low basso speaking voice.” The third movement, “A Sense of Direction,” opened like the evening news, informative marimba and all, before a passage of tense introspection rushed up into a bracing crescendo.
It’s hard to pull off what might be called “program music” with no programs. (A digital version was available to those able to scan a QR code from the placards held by staffers roving the rows, but what to do with that, once our phones must be turned off?)
Thus, it was hard to say whether audience members were aware of the work’s particular muse, that its movements were meant to reflect and refract aspects of his character, or that the gentleman taking the stage at the work’s conclusion to wild applause was the composer. But it didn’t seem to matter; the applause went on like a fourth movement.
(“Did you write that?” a woman behind me asked him once he resumed his seat. “I did,” he said. “Dude,” she said solemnly. “That was awesome.”)
Well before Lang’s hands touched the keys, they lit above the keyboard, hovering in the air like pieces of paper caught in the updraft of the beguilingly long introduction of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor (Op. 37), the allegro to which Wilkins added an appropriate degree of the composer’s requested brio.
Lang hammered his entrance like the first hard few drops of an incoming storm and just as quickly feinted into an airy, gentle touch, from the ground to the clouds in an instant. This agility was on display throughout — an effortlessly elastic, dynamic playfulness that highlights the humanity of the music, celebrates its intricacies and vagaries (such as those hypnotic two-note trills toward the first movement’s conclusion) and, for me, finally justifies the dramatic flair that sometimes (okay, maybe often) makes me roll my eyes when listening to Lang’s recordings.
He delivered the second movement carefully, compellingly, slowly and so quietly. Sometimes, I feared my pen was too loud on the paper, so I folded my notebook closed and waited for deeper cover.
He dove into the third movement the way one cannonballs into cold water, and really pushed the presto through its bombastic home stretch. His left hand alternated between summoning thunder and taking part in some impromptu assistant conducting. For his part, Wilkins kept fastidious pace and showcased his own dexterity — not least of all through an explosive finale.
Three standing ovations were followed by an audible gasp when Lang sat down for a surprise encore before intermission. In celebration of the Moon Festival, he offered his own version of the Chinese traditional “Jasmine Flower,” which amounts to a sensuous harmonic negotiation between the pentatonics of the original and the interpretation perhaps more readily recognized via Puccini’s use of it in “Turandot.”
The 20 percent or so of the audience that vamoosed from the hall during intermission could be forgiven, considering the delayed start, but the final performance of Howard Hanson’s second symphony — the “Romantic” — was well worth whatever pleading with the babysitter it might have taken to stay put.
Hanson, who died in 1981, was the founding director of the Eastman School of Music, where he served for four decades. He was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (in 1944, for his fourth symphony), often lumped in with the perennially unfashionable neo-romantics.
The “Romantic” is the source of all sorts of musical goodies you may have heard elsewhere — the roots of the Interlochen theme, the strangely sublime end-credit music in Ridley Scott’s 1979 thriller “Alien,” for example. But it also makes for a lovely and lasting indictment of the avant-garde trends and tropes of his day. Hanson’s abiding interest in beauty, his ease with playing the heartstrings and his unabashed sentimentality in this piece still register as defiant as they do disarming.
In Wilkins’s capable hands (and atop some masterful timpani work by Jauvon Gilliam), the symphony swelled and soared, its lightness cast in a new light — a welcome salvo against the numbness that contemporary life seems to demand between disasters (of whatever era) and a sorely missed sound that was well worth the wait.