The putative highlight of the evening was NOI’s contribution to the ubiquitous and seemingly never-ending celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial: “Songfest,” written for the American Bicentennial and given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra in 1977. “Songfest” aims to be a portrait of the diversity and sprawl of America, recreated by setting a wide-ranging array of poetry in a medley of styles. Intended as a major social statement and a demonstration of Bernstein’s musical versatility, it feels labored and hollow on both counts, like many of Bernstein’s later, aspirational pieces. “Songfest” is not often done, and I was eager to hear it when the NSO did it earlier in this Bernstein season, but after hearing it twice live, and a few times on recording, in the past few months, I have found it doesn’t improve with acquaintance.
That wasn’t the musicians’ fault, of course, and they were as ardent and lively as if they were playing a better piece, though the young singers, duped into thinking the music was as earnest and meaningful as the composer thought it should be, gave it correspondingly earnest treatment. The standout was the bass Patrick Guetti, whose sound was warm and rich as he negotiated “To What You Said,” a setting of a Walt Whitman poem that dances around the idea of homosexuality, Bernstein’s most personal and authentic moment in the whole cycle.
Joshua Conyers, a baritone who will join the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program in the fall, offered a spark of communication in “The pennycandystore beyond the El,” a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem set to jazz-inflected 12-tone music. But he had the unenviable task of taking the Langston Hughes part in a duet Bernstein set that contrasted “I, too sing America” with “Hey Negroes” by June Jordan. He sang ardently against the mezzo Zoie Reams’s more knowing impatience in a segment that seems to me an unbearably smug example of a white man (Bernstein) forcing himself into the black narrative with unwitting condescension, reducing the black experience to some kind of inauthentic squabble between the sexes.
A medley of styles is the piece’s hallmark, but young opera singers these days tend to be trained to sing one way only, a monochrome approach. Even in ensembles, these artists and the other three singers — Kerriann Otaño, a tight and hard-edge soprano; the mezzo Taylor Raven; and the bright tenor Alexander McKissick — were more operatic than vernacular, thick with vibrato and the urge to make Big Art.
The first half of the program was less promising on paper and more engaging in practice. The evening’s conductor was James Judd, a Brit, who was efficient and brisk in a vivid reading of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” A new critical edition of the work came out in the fall — the NSO has already performed it — that restores Gershwin’s original orchestration, including the tuning of the four car horns that are among the piece’s signatures and that sounded here more disparate and random and street-like than we are used to hearing them. It’s a leaner, brighter version, and it was a great fit for the energy and ardor of the young players, from a thicket of saxophonists to the really wonderful concertmaster, Paul Halberstadt.
The program opened with “An Outdoor Overture,” which Aaron Copland wrote in 1938 for the students of New York’s High School of Music and Art, and which was thus thematically appropriate for a concert given by supremely talented students. The NOI players are far above your average “student” level, but they did a nice job with this pleasant, energetic showcase. They will only continue to hone their talents as the month progresses; there are two more Saturday concerts to come, culminating with the program’s longtime leader, James Ross, conducting Doug Fitch’s innovative production of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” with puppets, which Ross led 10 years ago at the University of Maryland and which went on to the New York Philharmonic. It’s well worth a look — especially with players like these.
The NOI orchestra will perform Brahms’s First Symphony under JoAnn Falletta on June 23 and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” under James Ross on June 30.