The Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts have been going all out to promote the Shift festival, a week-long survey of the state of American orchestral life. There are advertisements in the Metro and on buses, and last night the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was packed with a diverse audience, many of them sporting green bandannas given out before the concert to support the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, the first group in the spotlight.
The theme of Tuesday’s concert was the natural world, and it included the East Coast premiere of a piece written to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, a mandolin concerto redolent of Appalachia, a tone poem inspired by prairie grasses and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Conductor Michael Butterman introduced the music from the stage, bantering with composer Stephen Lias and Nancy Smith, artistic director of a troupe of aerialists who accompanied the Copland suite with a highflying, death-defying dance routine suspended from ribbons and a hoop many feet above the concert hall stage.
The Shift festival explores a canonical belief in the professional orchestra world: that survival of the form requires diversifying the concert experience, collaborating with artists and groups outside the orchestra mainstream, and introducing new entertainment elements into the concert hall. This has been orthodoxy among thought leaders in the music world for at least 30 years, though it has taken a long time to filter down to the level where music is actually made and consumed, in cities across the country.
So the first Shift concert felt like a community-building exercise, a celebration of some basic ideas around which the orchestral world seeks to organize and rebuild. It didn’t, unfortunately, give one a sense of the full musical capabilities of the Boulder Philharmonic, which played a mostly subordinate role to a slide show and dance routine, and presented music that was new but familiar, following conventional patterns of concert repertoire that have been pretty much stable for a generation now.
The most exciting moments came during Jeff Midkiff’s Mandolin Concerto, especially in the last movement where the composer (who was also the soloist) throws off the yoke of an orchestral piece and indulges in a smaller-scale but more free-form jam session with the principal violin and a solo percussionist. The playing was delightful, virtuosic and exuberant, but like many pieces built around improvisatory musical styles imported from outside the concert hall, it left the impression that the music wanted to be someplace else. It craves release and escape, which is a curious message to send, though one sent for centuries by innumerable “gypsy” fantasies and folk-dance confections still found on concert programs today.
Stephen Lias’s “All the Songs That Nature Sings” is based on material inspired by a 2010 residency at Rocky Mountain National Park and aims to evoke the “rippling water, wind-swept grasses, and fluttering aspen leaves.” It was accompanied by a slide show, culminating in dramatic scenes of the high peaks. It is genial music for a large orchestra, carefully orchestrated to keep things gentle, hazy and impressionistic, with a vibraphone creating a blurry aura in the background and cascading woodwind figures internalized in the texture. Little melodic fragments, and a recurring major-seventh leap, emerge pointillistically, never quite developing into a lyrical line but giving an attenuated sense of a lyrical instinct underneath the shimmer.
Lias’s musical representation of the natural world is conventional: harp glissandos and burbling woodwinds depict water, for example. This is a disappointment. The music need not break ground harmonically, rhythmically or melodically, but if its ambition is to depict the natural world, it might go a lot further coloristically. The same can be said of Steve Heitzeg’s “Ghosts of the Grasslands,” which repeats a few basic interconnected melodic ideas throughout its length, opting for emphasis and reiteration rather than development.
The drama of the evening came with the choreographed Copland. In introductory marks, Nancy Smith of Frequent Flyers, said that aerial dance is a form distinct from circus performance. But the audience reacted mainly to the risks they took — gasping audibly at one point — with the women clinging to strong white ribbons, sometimes intertwined with the fabric, sometimes luxuriating in the billows of the material. The admixture of extreme physical danger into choreography would seem to be one of the essential things that distinguishes dance from more purely athletic forms; in any case, it made it difficult to experience the dance as part of a unified aesthetic experience with the music. The mind does this: struggle to listen, hope to God they don’t fall, listen a little more, say a silent prayer.
Shift: A Concert of American Orchestras continues at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. For more information and tickets, call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
Note: An earlier version of this story featured a caption with a photo of the Boulder Philharmonic and the Frequent Flyers troupe that incorrectly said it was taken at the Kennedy Center.