An unusual late-season tropical storm scudded up the U.S. East Coast this past week. Climate is on our minds, and probably more so, collectively speaking, than ever before. The National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda plumbed the a weather-related theme, “Wind & Wave,” in an invigorating concert at the Kennedy Center last night. They offered music of Wagner, Debussy, and Barber, and – mostly notably – a sparkling world premiere. Blue Electra, a violin concerto by Michael Daugherty and inspired by Amelia Earhart, featured an effervescent Anne Akiko Meyers at the top of her game.
Ambition, adventure, trailblazing, tragedy – Earhart (1897–1937) squeezed them all into her short life. Daugherty took inspiration from the pioneering aviator’s life and poetry to craft a colorful, witty and evocative four-movement violin concerto.
The orchestra set the scene wisely with Wagner’s overture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). With firm control of crisp brass, subtle winds, and a sturdy string section, Maestro Noseda ably brought out the tension and excitement in this classic work.
A Worthy Showcase for Anne Akiko Meyers
Composed in the composer’s early mature style – less expansively epic, yet already epically dramatic – it flowed well into Blue Electra‘s first movement, “Courage (1928).” Romantic-styled and accessible, the piece smoothly absorbs into its traditional harmonic language enough unexpected gestures and motions to make one sit forward in one’s seat. Especially riveting was Meyers‘ exquisite playing. She navigated her upper register beautifully, then knocked a gleeful cadenza out of the park, well illustrating these lines from the poem behind the movement: “The soul that knows [courage] not, knows no release / From little things.”
The second movement moves forward to imagine Earhart in Paris in 1932. Having received the Legion of Honor for her nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, she appears celebrating, in Daugherty’s imagination, at a “hot jazz” soirée. The music first spins out like a reel featuring violin and clarinet, then plunges into the modes of 1930s jazz in a delightful homage to Gershwin and Bernstein, with perhaps a nod to Django Reinhardt. Amid the jazzy rhythms and spaciousness it includes some wonderful, speedy unison runs between soloist and various woodwinds. There was richness, depth and a good jolt of humor in the orchestra’s evocation of this culture-saturated milieu.
The third movement depicts the dreamy musings of a youthful Earhart. Meyers here showed off a light, assured touched, mingling finesse with dazzling technique and again that very sweet upper register. The fourth and last movement describes Earhart’s final flight and presumed disappearance beneath the waves. Odd-number time signatures establish themselves, then blur away; early-jazz rhythms return. In a powerfully dynamic sequence, the violin trades off with the percussionists.
The music seems to demonstrate both the excitement of the “Queen of the Air”‘s attempt to fly around the world, and the disaster in which it ended. Confusion arises as different sections of the orchestra seem to play in different keys. Tension heightens as Earhart’s plane, the Electra, goes down. But even in death the heroine won’t be silenced. The violin soars to its highest possible notes, then gradually descends. The orchestra swells as the violin stubbornly iterates on a descending phrase. Finally all is one, as the piece finishes with a startling unison distention.
The Wind and the Waves: Barber and Debussy
The second half of the program opened with a warm performance of Samuel Barber’s subdued tone poem “Night Flight.” Noseda called on his musicians’ subtlety here. The music offers an interesting exploration of the wide variety of timbres that comprise an orchestra, with exposed passages for a great many different instruments, all within a flowing structure.
Debussy’s popular La Mer followed. The orchestra gave an effective reading of the humming, low-key excitement of the first of these three “symphonic sketches.” The musicians shone especially in the second, “Play of the Waves.” It was easy to picture in the delicate gestures glints of sunshine on the crests. The prominent harp part evoked the mystique of the ocean. In passages of rapid triplets the players showed collective virtuosity and an easy fit with Noseda’s interpretive intelligence.
In contrast, the stark staccatos of the third “sketch” grow from ominous to affirmative, ending with a sense of triumph. Altogether the performance was a credit to Debussy’s artistry. The entire concert, anchored by Daugherty’s wonderful new violin concerto and Meyers’ stellar performance, drew a vivid landscape of “Wind & Wave.” Composers have been painting sound pictures of nature, both benign and deadly, for ages. In the event, the November storm up the East Coast caused only some heavy rain and gusty winds in the mid-Atlantic states. But as real storms grow stronger, more and more music will whip up pained evocations of a worsening climate.
For one night, though, in a city built on swampland, music both stormy and gentle, of generations ago and of today, harmonized like a welcome weather forecast.