In Star-Spangled Fizzle, Premiere Treads on ‘george’

'george WASHINGTON,'  a new multimedia work by Roger Reynolds, incorporates seasonal images of the Mount Vernon estate. The NSO commission received its world premiere Oct. 3 with  music director Christoph Eschenbach (Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)
‘george WASHINGTON,’ a new multimedia work by Roger Reynolds, incorporates seasonal images of the Mount Vernon estate.
NSO commission, world premiere Oct. 3, 2013. (Photos by Margot Ingoldsby Schulman)
Rebecca J. Ritzel

Maybe it was a silent protest of the government shutdown, or maybe music director Christoph Eschenbach just thought his season-opening program was patriotic enough already. For whatever reason, the National Symphony Orchestra did not open its regular season with “The Star-Spangled Banner” Thursday night, but instead jumped straight to some Haydn. Once the composer’s Symphony No. 21 in A major was dispatched in crisp, clean form, Eschenbach was en route to the evening’s central curiosity: The world premiere of george WASHINGTON, a multimedia tribute to the first president by Roger Reynolds.

Mount Vernon in summer.
Mount Vernon in summer.

As creative orchestral collaborations go, the National Symphony Orchestra is not exactly a pioneering ensemble, which is why it’s important to praise this imaginative undertaking for being just that. Reynolds’ 23-minute work featured three actors, three screens’ worth of video projections and a complementary electronic score broadcast via speakers strategically placed around the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The piece was co-commissioned by the NSO, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and the University of California’s Washington Center.

In terms of bells, whistles and extraneous capital letters, these funders got their money’s worth. But despite Reynolds’s best efforts to micromanage speech, site and sound, george WASHINGTON is hardly a cohesive work.

The piece opens with a tinkling of harpsichord flitting from various speakers and gradually distorting, as if someone had depressed an 18th century tremolo. The electronic effects are more interesting than any of the music produced by the orchestra onstage. It’s minimalist, not because it features undulating rhythms in the style of Philip Glass, but because many musicians have little to do. A handful of instruments take turns creating series of sustained, jarring chords that build and dissolve, sometimes filling the space between narrations and at other times underscoring them. Occasionally, a sad trombone trill coincides with a comma. Reynolds pored over manuscripts and carefully chose quotes from Washington’s letters and journals. Textually, there are five sections, all hitting what could be called the B-sides of Washington’s life as we know it: Origins, Martha, Engagement, Lafayette and Reflection.

Video collage from Mount Vernon.
Video collage from Mount Vernon.

Rarely do the music and film – images of Washington’s Mount Vernon estate – sync with the verbal sentiments. Why such somber, eerie music during the ruminations on Washington’s blissful retirement? (And for that matter, why close-ups of a dogwood blossom while the narrator opines about fig trees? Or spines of books from the library while he contemplates slavery?) The tone throughout the piece was overtly creepy, similar to Ligeti’s music for The Shining, but less sophisticated. Not that the piece wasn’t cinematic: if the filmmakers behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter want their next installment to be George Washington: Zombie Slayer, Reynolds has just written the soundtrack.

Perhaps his goal was to subvert Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. He certainly succeeded: the narrations take too much coordination for a community orchestra to haul the mayor or a news anchor up onstage for a James Earl Jones moment.

“Where’s the guy dressed up as George?” the patron behind me quipped while applauding politely once the last strains of the electro-harpsichord dissipated. The NSO didn’t need to commission a social studies lesson, but surely there’s a happy medium between this head-scratcher of a premiere and powdered-wig parlor music.

After intermission, the NSO audiences heard a contrasting lesson in careful orchestration. William Neil, the Kennedy Center’s house organist, soloed in Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. In Neil’s hands, the giant pipes at the rear of the hall functioned as an integral part of the orchestra rather than a distraction from it. The symphony is rarely churchy and seldom preachy; Saint-Saëns’ interest was in finding peaceable sonic combinations. Eschenbach coached the musicians through well-defined phrases with clear changes in dynamics. Everything got appropriately thunderous in the fourth movement, and the crowd responded in kind.

The evening was, one could say, the new normal of new music: Put the premiere on a program with two pieces that will please the core audience. But perhaps the NSO lost an opportunity to play much more than the national anthem. In concept, george WASHINGTON must have appealed to new audiences in this city of furloughed feds and think-tank wonks. But pairing it with an organ symphony? To the uninitiated, nothing sounds less off-putting. There’s no place like the U.S. capital for Americana. Why not some Copland, or Barber or even John Adams? After all, that last name typically follows Washington’s.

Rebecca J. Ritzel is an arts journalist based in Alexandria, Va. She teaches writing at the University of Maryland.