‘America the Beautiful,’ With the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap by Yvonne French

America the Beautiful by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by the earnest and lively American conductor Emil de Cou soared at Wolf Trap.

"Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California", 1945. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona  © 2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
“Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California”, 1945. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona
© 2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

First of all, what a great place. It is so nice to sit in the Filene Center on a summer evening with its soaring wooden wings that funnel breezes cooled by an earlier rain. On Saturday it caressed the audience almost, it seemed, in time with the music.

The best piece they played was George Gershwin’s An American in Paris. De Cou said they liked the music and you could tell by the way he conducted. Sometimes both of his feet left the ground at the same time. The orchestra seems to know it so well that some of them didn’t even need the sheet music. It was the single best piece of symphonic music I have ever heard in a live concert. It was beautiful to experience the locations of the sounds as they hovered around this or that section of the orchestra or darted out over the audience like a hummingbird or flapped by like a heron. What a treat!

Being a more visual person, the highlight of the show for me was when they projected a series of Ansel Adams’ (1902 -1984) photographs on huge screens. The musical accompaniment was composed by jazz pianist Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) and his son Chris Brubeck, who was watching the show from the sound board. The piece, Ansel Adams: America was not jazz, but it captured Ansel Adams’ stunning landscapes well. I like Ansel Adams’ work because it is easy to tell what he is trying to do in his photographs. And the music interpreted them just how I saw them. For a humungous hulk of a mountain with an immensely tall river cascading into the air and crashing on the rocks below, we heard big booms of the drums, a roar of brass and a wash of strings. For the little rill of water trickling down the rock face beside the main stream we heard woodwinds.

Adams’ photographs have four hallmarks. First was his luminosity—something achieved only in black and white photography because of the silver used in the photographic process. Second was  his use of light and shadow—for example he sometimes places his foreground in shadow but the vista in sun, or the whole vista is speckled with the shadows of clouds. Third was his sharp detail. He started the Group of f/64 with a couple of photographers in the 1930s. Sixty-four is the smallest-sized aperture available on most lenses and gives you the widest range of sharp focus. Fourth and perhaps most important was his treatment of blacks, grays and whites. He invented the zone system to make sure the bright details are not washed out and the shadows are not all relegated to the blackest blacks.

Sitting there at Wolf Trap, which is a national park, his famous images of the landscapes of the American West made me say to myself, “Is this rock monolith, this snowy range, this leafy valley, this rock-strewn  moonscape part of my country?! How huge! How great!” However, the orchestra did not always capture forcefully enough the grandeur of the images, though it did create a full cosmos of sound.

That fantastic cosmos is what all the rest of the performance was like. The evening started with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which opened with pure brass and percussion that actually brought to mind amber waves of grain giving way to mountains. The solo by principal cellist David Hardy made me trance out and get centered, opening my consciousness for the beautiful music that was to follow.

What came next was a two-part tribute to Abraham Lincoln. The first part was music from the film Lincoln by Star Wars composer John Williams. Concertmaster Ricardo Cyncynates used his violin to transport us to Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, also the birthplace of bluegrass. But this was no see-saw square-dance music. It was virtuoso fiddling that Cyncynates executed with long harmonic drones mixed with short, lilting notes.

The second part of the Lincoln theme came when Senator Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) narrated Lincoln writings while the symphony played A Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland. Before they began, de Cou described how Copland wrote the music during World War II to uplift the American people. It started off scary, and then went into a lullaby, and then it was triumphant and thoughtful by turns before becoming sad but proud as Warner read, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

The next special guest was the incredible soloist Andrea Carroll, who sang in a strong, clear low-register timbre a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch, who died a year ago. The renowned composer, conductor, and pianist was a director of the Wolf Trap board.

At the end of the concert, de Cou joked that the program had accidentally included the encore number, which was good because we suspected we would be asked to sing “America The Beautiful,” and we bravely struggled through a later verse with the help of querulous sopranos from the older ladies in the audience who knew the exact words. When they are gone, it will be our turn to remember these things, and thank goodness Wolf Trap is here to help. But there’s always ‘follow the bouncing ball,’ just in case.

“O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!”

America the Beautiful by the National Symphony Orchestra played for one night only on July 13, 2013 at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap -1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For future performances and Information, check their calendar of events.



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