“The history of America is now changed,” an emotional Justice Felix Frankfurter declared to Leonard Bernstein at the 1957 world premiere of West Side Story—which just happened to take place in Washington DC’s National Theatre. Bernstein later excerpted the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story for a New York Philharmonic celebration of his works. Christoph Eschenbach conducted the NSO in a January 2011performance, which is featured in the CD, Remembering JFK on the Ondine label.
If West Side Story is a tragic tale of love set against the backdrop of New York City gang warfare, the dark atmosphere of 40s and 50s Los Angeles at the height of the film noir era permeates John Adams’ symphony, City Noir. It is, says Adams, “the third of a triptych of orchestral works that have as their theme the California experience, its landscape and its culture.” John Adams and the NSO performed City Noir last May in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Sean Shepherd’s Blue Blazes conjures up a whole different palette. This “Concert Opener” was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra, and showcases all the areas of the orchestra, concluding, as the young composer tells us, with a “wild, distracted, self-satisfied romp.” Blue Blazes was one of the featured works on the NSO’s 2012 concert tour of the Americas. Christoph Eschenbach conducted this performance in June, 2012, just prior to leaving for the tour.
Stephen Albert’s River Run Symphony was also a National Symphony Orchestra commission, and it was performed during the historic 1990 NSO tour to Russia, led by Mstislav Rostropovich. The 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition is inspired by James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake, and was the first commission by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, which has to date produced more than 60 works by more than 50 American composers. May’s NSO Showcase will feature the shorter version of River Run which the composer named Rivering Waters, comprising the first and last movements of the symphony. This performance was recorded last April at the Kennedy Center with Hugh Wolff conducting the NSO.
Finally, in a June, 2008 Kennedy Center performance, Leonard Slatkin conducted the NSO in Copland’s 3rd and last symphony, which celebrated the end of World War II. This triumphant symphony closes with a variation on Copland’s own Fanfare for the Common Man, and in the words of Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted the 1946 premiere, “There is no doubt about it—this is the greatest American Symphony. It goes from the heart to the heart.” If you think about it, that’s a pretty eloquent description of American music.
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