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NSO hits the club, and scores

The NSO fills Echostage with Bernstein and a crowd on Friday night. Photo: Yassine El Mansouri.
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The National Symphony Orchestra went clubbing on Friday night. As in, played in one.

This week marks the orchestra’s fourth installment of the initiative “NSO in your Neighborhood,” which sends the orchestra’s players, singly and jointly and sometimes all together, out into the cafes and schools and shelters and bars and hospitals of some part of Washington that is not the Kennedy Center. (This year’s target is the area around Brookland and the region designated “NoMa.”) These programs are certainly a way to reach people who don’t usually go to NSO concerts, sometimes because they have no opportunity to get tickets but sometimes simply because the Kennedy Center is far away, babysitters are expensive, and they just never got around to it. But some of the concerts have smacked a bit of well-meaning didactism – like last year’s performance at Union Station, when the orchestra’s assistant conductor, Ankush Kumar Bahl, told the audience that the work they were about to hear was by a man named Beethoven. (I’d wager more people know Beethoven’s name than Paul McCartney’s.)

Friday, however, found the orchestra playing at Echostage, a big warehouse-like club space that holds 3,000 people, usually to hear electronic dance music or hip-hop rather than Shostakovich. And this time, the NSO got it right.

Fingers of blue-tinged black light strobed out across a dance floor filled to near capacity. Video projections pulsed up and down the back walls. And Steven Reineke, the orchestra’s pops conductor, led the forces in a program that included Bernstein and Shostakovich and Prokofiev, as well as some other stuff. It felt like an event. It was exciting. People left happy.

I am tongue-in-cheek in dismissing the “other stuff,” since one of the NSO’s signal achievements with this evening was to integrate other kinds of area music without pandering or watering down. One of the challenges an orchestra faces in this kind of setting — in this case, making an entrance after DJ Stylus had played for an hour and built up an atmosphere of excitement — is that, once the initial frisson of the first couple of pieces is past, you have, well, an orchestra, an ensemble not necessarily designed to make its maximum impact playing short excerpts with disco lighting and truly crappy amplification. (This is not me being a classical music purist and saying, “No mikes!” This is me observing that certain sections of the music were almost inaudible and others were way too loud, and further observing that neither this sound system nor its operators were, understandably, attuned to the particular needs of this kind of group.)

Therefore, it was savvy of the orchestra’s artistic administrator, Justin Ellis, to recruit the beatboxer and rapper Christylez Bacon, the electric cellist Wytold Lebing, and the DJ: incorporating some other virtuosic local talent with genuine connections to classical music to create a dialogue that made more sense, in this space, than a straight-ahead classical program. Lebing studied classical cello when he was growing up in northern Virginia, and he offered a remix of Bach’s first cello suite, while Bacon, a brilliant and charismatic performer, presented his take on Pachelbel’s Canon. (Both these works involved the other soloists and the orchestra.) For one piece, they were joined on stage by Glenn Donnellan, a second violinist who has become one of the NSO’s most notable ambassadors in outreach programs, playing, very well, his trademark violin he made out of a baseball bat.

The problem, invariably, is that once you bring on soloists, the orchestra recedes slightly into the background. The “Montagues and Capulets” episode from “Romeo and Juliet” was the only number that fell a little flat, since it filled in the gap between two soloist-led excursions (one of them an original piece by Lebing, “My Regards”). However: the NSO didn’t coast. The musicians played with involvement, from the “Candide” overture through the Allegro from Shostakovich’s Tenth symphony to the Bernstein “Mambo” that closed the program. And most of the principals were in their seats, signalling that this was a genuine effort from the whole orchestra.

The orchestra also did a great job getting the word out to a new and markedly younger audience (including a few children, dancing around the club floor with abandon). The point of this kind of exercise is not only to woo in new ticket-buyers. The point, ever more, is simply to show the orchestra participating as equals — not as missionaries — in dialogue with other artists and other communities. NSO in your Neighborhood continues on Sunday and Monday and concludes with Christoph Eschenbach leading an all-Mozart program at Catholic University, including the wonderful flute concerto he performed in November with the orchestra’s principal flutist, Aaron Goldman, and that’s well and good. But in terms of mission, and expanding the orchestra’s limits, and audience size and excitement, Friday’s program will be hard to top. It’s one of the best efforts I’ve seen from an orchestra at this kind of thing, and it shows a direction the NSO — “in your neighborhood,” or all year round — should continue to explore.

A list of the remaining free events in the NSO in your Neighborhood initiative can be found on the NSO’s website.