Conductor: John Adams
Copland: Suite from Billy the Kid
Adams: The Wound-Dresser - Eric Owens
Barber: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11
Elgar: Variations on an original Theme, Op. 36, "Enigma"
Seeing, and especially hearing, a composer conduct his own work can only be an at least interesting endeavor. These days, not only multi-faceted John Adams is the subject of a special residency at the Kennedy Center with the "John Adams: Retrospectives" program, but the man himself was at hand on Thursday evening to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra in his very own "Wound-Dresser" as well as his own choosing of Copland's fun excerpts from "Billy the Kid", Barber's stirring "Adagio for Strings" and Elgar's engaging "Enigma".
Billy the Kid was certainly an appropriate way to start a program focusing mostly on American music, and the NSO got right down to business, led by an elastically dynamic maestro. The various scenes of the story were brought out to life bright and clear, and a good time was had by all.
One couldn't expect a sharper contract with John Adams' "Wound-Dresser", a deeply sober affair that had been inspired by one of Walt Whitman's poems. As he was tirelessly toiling away in the hospital tents hastily erected on the National Mall during the Civil War, he wrote about the endless pain, suffering and death he got to witness on a daily basis. Somberly sung by a committed Eric Owens, the text had nevertheless occasionally trouble rising above the plaintiff violins and mournful trumpet solos.
More violins (and what violins!) were heard after intermission in Barber's Adagio for Strings. Famously used in the movie "Platoon", this orchestration of the slow movement of his First String Quartet had long been a crowd favorite, never mind that Barber later developed some decidedly mixed feelings about it. Immediately gripping and never letting go, it beautifully rose in all its lushness and left us wanting for more.
The only representative of Old Albion in this Yankee festival, Elgar's evocative variations, representing a wide range of people and situations, from the ones very close to him to mere trifles, were mostly light-hearted vignettes, except for its emotional core that was yet another feast for violin lovers, the beloved "Nimrod". The whole work consequently displays an impressive range of emotions and turned out to be the perfect opportunity for the orchestra to show a lot of colors, which it did remarkably well.