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NSO and NASA join to celebrate the moon landing on an orchestral scale

Astronaut Michael Collins, 88, speaks — under a photograph of himself — at “NSO Pops: Apollo 11: A 50th Anniversary” on July 20 at the Kennedy Center. (Tracey Salazar)
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It was a nearly miraculous event, brought about by the behind-the-scenes work of a lot of partly uncredited people. That’s true of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but what I’m talking about is the commemoration of its 50th anniversary that the NSO Pops hosted at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. The orchestra presented an amazing array of heavy hitters — from Herbie Hancock to Pharrell Williams — and, equally effectively, a wonderful stream of archival video footage, remarkably edited and consistently gripping. The whole evening was expert entertainment. I didn’t quite know they had it in them.

Certainly, no expense was spared. The National Symphony Orchestra offered a cornucopia of luminaries, from TV personalities Meredith Vieira and Adam Savage (the show’s host) to the actor LeVar Burton, who resoundingly read excerpts from Arthur C. Clarke and John F. Kennedy. Neil Armstrong’s son Mark and granddaughter Kali came out and performed a song called “Flight of Fancy” before home videos of the family flying toy planes; the performance was thoroughly respectable and the videos touching, rather than hokey. The author Charles Fishman shared anecdotes from his book “One Giant Leap,” including a story about the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 jury-rigging a fender on the lunar rover using laminated maps and duct tape. Interwoven through all this was striking video footage, much of it provided by NASA, which included a segment about plans for the next lunar visit.

All this revved up the audience so much that when Michael Collins, one of the three astronauts from the 1969 mission, took the stage, he was greeted with a storm of applause that visibly took him by surprise. “It’s nice to be here,” he said. “At age 88, it’s nice to be anywhere.”

He then delivered afresh the remarks he had given to Congress in September 1969, which seemed no less relevant or poignant with 50 years’ distance. The astronauts in orbit “could look toward the moon, toward Mars, toward our future in space . . . or we could look back toward the Earth, our home, with its problems spawned over more than a millennium of human occupancy. We looked both ways. We saw both, and I think that is what our nation must do.”

Strictly speaking, I was there not for any of this, but to review the music, specifically a new orchestral work by Michael Giacchino, “Advent,” commissioned for the event and performed at almost exactly the anniversary of the time Armstrong first stepped onto the moon’s surface. Giacchino, who began as a video-game and film composer, is an able craftsman, and he provided a big, colorful, showy work full of clear themes, intoned by a female soprano in high wordless vocalese, and underlined by the penetrating hum of prayer bowls, stationed not only on the stage but also in the aisles of the auditorium. His music is built on tune, not structure, and this piece built to the splendid climaxes that the evening called for, pulling away at the last minute to quieter passages — something also evident in another piece, “The Voyage,” which the orchestra played earlier in the evening, complete with a fine solo by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra harpist Sarah Fuller.

For my money, though, the musical highlights lay elsewhere — with Pharrell Williams, for example, wholehearted and drawing the audience into the song “Freedom.” And while the orchestra hit some obligatory notes — such as “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the quintessential space music since Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” — where it really shone was in the Saint-Saens organ concerto, which was played along with video that was so expertly cut to it that it became a cosmic soundtrack. Duncan Copp and Todd Douglas Miller were given bios in the program as producer and film editor; their work here was outstanding.

The musical direction lay in the hands of Emil de Cou; a former associate conductor with the NSO who still leads them at Wolf Trap, he also serves as musical consultant to NASA. With a light touch on the podium and an easy way with musicians and audiences, de Cou is a perfect conductor for this kind of program. (At one point, when the host Savage dropped the helmet of his space suit and it rolled across the stage, de Cou picked it up and put it on the concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, who responded with a thumbs-up; if this was improvisation, it was letter-perfect.)

At the very end of a night that had celebrated unity and national achievement, the orchestra played “America the Beautiful,” and de Cou turned to the audience and made sure everyone was singing along — another surprisingly moving and effective moment.

Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the solo harpist in “The Voyage Piece.” It was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Sarah Fuller, not Adriana Horne. This review has been updated.