First, the conductor takes the stage: a tall, stately man in white tie and tails, pacing up and down with catlike steps while he talks into the microphone to the audience. Then he stands on the podium with his back to the audience, legs motionless, back motionless, only his arms moving to wield a long white baton, looking like an animated Art Deco silhouette. An extra lip has been added onto the stage to make room for dancers, and the players sit behind it, so that, although they are actually no more distant than they are at any other performance, they seem very far away.
The National Symphony Orchestra’s “New Moves: symphony + dance” festival this month at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall presented the last of its three programs on Friday and Saturday under the conductor Thomas Wilkins. Presumably, the pieces are supposed to heighten our sensitivity to visual cues. But I’m not sure what message the visual cues I saw on the first half of the program were trying to give me — except to underline, yet again, that the traditional concert experience has about it something artificial and constrained that restricts the energy of music that wants to dance.
Take Michael Daugherty’s “Red Cape Tango,” the final movement of the composer’s Grammy-winning “Metropolis Symphony,” which balances gleefully on the lines between sacred and profane, still and moving, classical and rock. While bells toll out the tones of “Dies Irae,” a bass offers the sinuous accompaniment to Carmen’s “Habañera,” kissed by castanets: This is the sensuous, colorful side of death, spreading gradually through the orchestra like an infection. The piece is supposed to depict Superman’s fight to the death, and it takes classical-music chestnuts and thrusts them into a pop-culture framework: a fight in itself. But there was no fight on Friday: Wilkins stayed sober and ramrod-straight, and the music’s eagerness gradually faded from the performance.
George Walker’s one-movement Sinfonia No. 4, co-commissioned by the NSO in 2012, fared better with this approach: music as solemn and emphatic, deliberately tinged with Americana, as Wilkins’s conducting. But Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” failed to take flight. It didn’t help that I just saw it in a performance that really did dance, when the University of Maryland student orchestra, under the guidance of Liz Lerman, walked and danced and leaped around the stage while playing this very piece, as if all its forces had been freed. In comparison, this version looked, and sounded, bottled up.
If you make a festival centered on music and dance, and then make everybody wait until the second half for the dance, you’ve arguably already pushed the music into the background by making it seem a prelude to the main event. The main event, certainly, was the world premiere of Jessica Lang’s “Scape,” set to John Adams’s violin concerto performed by Leila Josefowicz, an abundance of activity that made the program’s first half seem austere by comparison. Josefowicz, in sheer black with her hair up on her head in a coronet, found herself in the odd position of a star soloist playing beautifully, and yet playing second fiddle: The dance interposed itself, literally and figuratively, between her and the audience. (If you really want to put music and dance on an equal footing, maybe you should get a conductor of the caliber that the NSO offers on regular subscription concerts.)
When the music started, no dancers were visible. In an interview a couple of weeks before the performance, Lang told me she was planning to have them seated among the orchestra musicians for the whole first movement. Instead, though, they appeared, one by one, in the chorus seats by the organ, above and behind the players, wearing cool purples and blue-greens, eventually coming together into a group and executing staggered arm movements like a stylized version of the Wave in a sports stadium. Moving to the side boxes, pressing on the walls with their hands, they introduced the idea of dancer-as-audience, giving form to people who were observing and interacting with music at a remove from it, culminating in the moment when they finally came onstage and stood still, heads slightly cocked, offering a visual, choreographic representation of the act of listening.
I liked Lang’s dance quite a bit, although I liked this opening section better than the denser, more intricately patterned settings of the second and third movements. But while it responded well to the music (at the start of the third movement, the antic speed of the notes materialized in the comic flat-footed skittering run of a male dancer onto the stage) and while it included some interesting movement (a male dancer supporting a female one in the air with his calves, turning her in a gentle circle just above the floor), I wish it had further pursued the kind of self-reflection it at least implicitly introduced in the opening, “audience” sequence: actually dealing with the interaction of people playing music and people listening to it, rather than going off in graceful, certainly strong, wholly choreographic directions.
As it was, it became merely one more choreography-to-live-music event, much like the joint performance of the German National Youth Orchestra and German National Youth Ballet last month that the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free of charge on its Digital Concert Hall, playing on your computer screen now. Lang, at least, is not wedded to the gimmick; as I previously reported, she plans to keep the piece in repertoire. The orchestra is expendable. Which is probably not quite what the NSO had in mind when it started this well-meaning but ill-defined project.