The tree branches were like dark and straight brush strokes on the white screen — overlapping and jagged, as if painted by Franz Kline. Beneath them, the music welled up and ebbed like river water, shifting restlessly, one instrument lapping over another.
Roger Reynolds’s “george WASHINGTON” — a composition that had its world premiere Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall — is as much an “all-over” composition as the work of Kline and his fellow abstract expressionists. Reynolds, like those painters, seems to be seeking to create a work that has no differentiation between subject and background, in which each element counterbalances every other — in this case, video projection, recorded snippets of bird songs, three male narrators and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Reynolds took on a tricky assignment in setting out to write a serious musical work about “the father of our country.” His commission originated with the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which joined with the University of California and the NSO’s inestimable Hechinger Fund, so some literal historical content was built into the concept from the get-go. (The piece also commemorates the opening of a presidential library across the street from Mount Vernon.) The challenge is to be informative and creative without creating something that smacks of the kind of educational video they often play in the visitors’ centers of historic houses — and being informative while offering a genuine artistic experience.
Reynolds’s piece doesn’t entirely break free of the gravitational pull of that model. But it does represent a refreshingly unconventional take on music’s role in a multimedia collaboration. Usually the assumption is that the music is the most important thing onstage; here, even with the NSO replete with percussion, the music was presented as one equal among others, taking a supporting role. The one element that’s meant to emerge from this layered, ever-morphing sound scape and mood scape — studded with words Washington wrote at three distinct stages of his life — is Washington himself.
In some ways, “george WASHINGTON” is worthy of respect; it represents a thoughtful, considered portrait. As a piece, I don’t think it entirely succeeds: It is too nebulous to be fully compelling, and its “all-over” nature means that it offers no dramatic arc, just a swath of uniform texture.
That, you might say, is the point. But if you’re going to load the stage with bells and whistles, a full orchestra and its music director, Christoph Eschenbach, plus state-of-the-art video screens and three variously emoting narrators (Clark Young, Thomas Keegan and Philip Larson — their speaking voices ranging down the staff from tenor to bass), then it is disingenuous not to accept that you create the impression, and the anticipation, that something will be dramatic.
Instead, what Thursday’s audience got was a work of interwoven colors and textures, moving all around their heads. At a couple of junctures, recorded sounds — such as a harpsichord playing an 18th-century ditty — hopped around the auditorium, from one speaker to another, in one of the best effects of the whole night.
“george WASHINGTON” was introduced by a coeval: Haydn, almost exactly the same age as Washington, whose Symphony No. 21 was also (incredibly) getting its first-ever NSO performance. A “church symphony,” opening with a slow movement and embellished with brass, this piece got a lively reading from Eschenbach, whose Haydn is never going to be dry or academic. If there was some looseness in the ensemble, there was also, especially at the end, a nice sense of verve. Eschenbach seems to have returned for the fall season with a certain laxness and a lot of emotion to share; his conducting seems looser and more full of gestures than ever.
If the organ is not the instrument you know best and you want a crash course in how to listen to one, you could do worse than comparing Cameron Carpenter (the organist who played the last half of Saint-Saëns’s “Organ Symphony” at the NSO’s opening gala last weekend) and William Neil (the NSO and National Presbyterian Church organist who was the soloist in the complete performance of the same work Thursday). Carpenter is doing his best to position himself to be a big-name soloist, and his playing had a hell-for-leather quality. Neil seems already to be where he wants to go, career-wise; you could say he represents the best side of tradition, while Carpenter represents the excitement of the new. Neil’s very entrance, loud and rich and full, had more decorum, more rounded edges, than Carpenter’s aggressive flourish: Here I am.
Just being able to make the comparison is a luxury, and a benefit of the Kennedy Center’s new organ is that it could — please, could it? — allow one to hear more styles and approaches to organ-playing in the future.
The concert repeats Friday and Saturday.