The National Symphony Orchestra’s program Thursday night — to be repeated Saturday — was on the shorter and lighter side, with a mostly different, and quite challenging, program coming Friday evening. The one work to be performed all three nights is the Violin Concerto by the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, Mason Bates (tonight’s concert is an all-Bates program, “Declassified – The B Sides,” beginning at 9 p.m.).
Guest conductor Hugh Wolff, who began his career here in 1979 and has returned many times since, led the NSO briskly through an engaging all-American program. Besides Bates’s concerto (a local premiere, though the piece has been played around the world and recorded), Wolff offered two classics; Samuel Barber’s “School for Scandal” Overture, and Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2. Bates and Ives have a commonality of seeking to integrate melodies, sounds and grooves of their time into older formal structures. In Bates’s case, that means beatboxing, sampling and other electronic ephemera; with Ives, it was hymns, marches and folk songs, but refracted and deconstructed.
Ives has never penetrated any foreign markets; you can count on the fingers of one hand the recordings of his music by non-American artists. But he was a true original, if one whose talents were not fully realized (he made his living as an insurance executive). The Symphony No. 2 is a deeply conservative work, with none of the craziness that many people associate with this iconoclast.
Indeed, much of the texture and flavor of the work is distinctly Germanic, almost Wagnerian. This cocoon of comfort masks many flaws (congealed orchestration, sometimes fogbound musical prose, and too little rhythmic interest), but American audiences will always amuse themselves by picking out the “sampling” he does, not only of familiar tunes such as “Camptown Races” and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” but of snippets of Beethoven and Brahms. This symphony does not truly come alive until the finale, and some listeners may have lost interest by then. Still, there’s a life-force there that deserves to be heard more often (its last performance here was in 1988, also with Wolff).
As for Bates’s new concerto, it is an appealing, quirky piece — too long, in my estimation, but a lot of fun. It begins with a retro (by which I mean Stone-Agey) groove, eventually taken up by the soloist, alternating with extremely expressive lines at the very top of the instrument. Other episodes get into asymmetrical (if monotonous) note-spinning, and the orchestral accompaniment seems a little more complex than necessary. But Bates is a serious artist, whose ideas should be part of every conversation about 21st-century music. One audience member — of an advanced age — made a point of telling me how much he enjoyed the piece. Soloist Anne Akiko Meyers, for whom the concerto was written, played with fire and songfulness.
The Barber overture, written when he was an undergraduate, is one of a handful of first orchestral efforts that immediately announce the presence of a master, in the class of Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. The finest thing on the program, it got a somewhat seat-of-the-pants performance undoubtedly due to limited rehearsal time. Wolff is a good conductor, though sometime too focused on efficiency. His beat recoils more than it anticipates, and his body language is never relaxed. Still, he was firmly in control all night (leading both the overture and symphony without a score), and the NSO coped well with some difficult challenges.