Washington Classical Review »Blog Archive» Thunder strikes on and off stage as NSO marks half a century at Wolf Trap
Fifty years ago, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts presented their first concert in the suburbs of Washington, on land donated by Catherine Filene Shouse. On Friday evening, the National Symphony Orchestra celebrated its partnership with Wolf Trap, its summer home for all the history of the park, on the exact anniversary of this event and in the theater bearing the middle name of Mrs. Shouses.
The conductor, JoAnn Falletta, and soloists were all women, a tribute to Ms. Shouse’s leadership in creating the only performing arts national park. The great tradition of listening to the NSO perform outdoors in the elements continued, despite a ravine from a storm that blew in the middle of the concert.
Fittingly, the program featured the entirety of ONS, heard for the first time since February 2020. It opened with Michael Torke’s Javelin, an opening movement commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1994. The commission came from the Atlanta Olympic Committee, and the piece was also performed in 1996 at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics. The thrill of athletic competition also felt apt for the occasion.
Hearing a broad symphonic power was a moving experience after so many months of reduced line performances: massed strings again sharing desks, bubbling waves of woods, the shrill swell of brass, bursts of harp and reflections of percussion. Falletta maximized the excitement with a fast, incisive pace, threading the needle through metric offsets, causing a stray early entry at one point. Chalk until bottled up enthusiasm.
Christine Goerke, a former student of the soprano and the Wolf Trap Opera Company, only added to the sonic power, in a grand Hollywood arrangement of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin. She invited the audience to stand up and sing the final verse, adding a searing conclusion to the stratosphere. The summer pop vibe of the concert continued at the end of Goerke’s set with a beautiful rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” by The sound of music by Richard Rodgers.
In the middle was an astonishing combination of orchestral brilliance and soprano dramatic energy in “Voi lo sapete o mama”, by Mascagni. Cavalleria Rusticana. Goerke gave a raw emotional side to Santuzza’s confessional air, the brown tone communicating poignant shame and anguish. The melting chest voice in the final sentences burned the heart.
There were photos projected on the story of Wolf Trap, accompanied by speeches by Falletta and the artists, as the piano was brought in for Chopin’s Andante spianato and large brilliant polonaise. On the keyboard, Joyce Yang’s left hand whispered serenely, while her right slipped in rhythmic freedom, unrolling complex polyphonic lines in the delighted silence of the summer evening, the calm before the storm.
In the quick conclusion section of the play, Yang kind of kept his focus focused as a rapidly moving storm front swept across the area. Spectators on the lawn, drenched in seconds by flash rain causing flooding, shouted and ran for cover. As thunder rumbled and rain blew down the sides of the theater, Yang remained admirably focused, whirling dizzying strokes and searing lightning strikes the treble.
For the final set, Cynthia Erivo offered orchestral arrangements of popular songs, all made famous by great women artists. Erivo had the vocal talent to brilliantly channel Aretha Franklin in Ronnie Shannon’s “I Never Loved a Man” and Carolyn Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way”. Two other songs, “I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good” bear the imprint of Nina Simone, impetuous and relentless.
A highlight came with “I (Who Have Nothing)”, an Italian song associated in its English version with Shirley Bassey. Erivo’s powerful highs communicated the aggrieved woman’s rage, a pop counterpart to the grievance of the opera Santuzza sung by Goerke earlier in the evening. Erivo concluded the concert with a pleasant encore, his own song released last month, “The Good”, in an orchestral arrangement heard for the first time.
The ONS returns to Wolf Trap with conductor Jonathon Heyward and violinist Francesca Dego at 8 p.m. on July 8 and 9. wolftrap.org