Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Review: Remembering JFK - Two Views of History

Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert
National Symphony Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

This new release from Ondine is actually two historical musical documents in one. The first CD is a recording of the 50th Anniversary Concert held at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra lead by Christoph Eschenbach. This January, 2011 event took place 50 years after the January 19, 1961 Inaugural Concert for the president-elect, John F. Kennedy. The second disc has some excerpts from that historic concert.

The centerpiece of the 2011 concert is a newly-commissioned work by Peter Lieberson, "Remembering JFK, an American Elegy." Modeled along the lines of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," the music blends quotations from JFK's speeches along with orchestral accompaniment that sets the tone for the words. It's an interesting work that sounds distinctively American, without being either crassly patriotic nor excessively maudlin. Richard Dreyfuss narrates with gravity and conviction. I'm used to hearing Kennedy's New England delivery, so I found Dreyfuss sounding a little too nasal for my taste. But that's just me.
The concert includes Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story," and his "Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy." The orchestra delivers effective performances of both these works.

The concluding work is Gershwin's "Concerto in F" with pianist Tzimon Barto. Barto plays with fire and conviction, but leans more towards a classical rather than a jazz-inflected performance. The Concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of the "Rhapsody in Blue," and the serious-minded interpretation it receives here may be part of the reason why. That's not to say Eschenbach and the NSO don't do the work justice, it's just that this is a very good -- rather than great -- performance.

The second disc features some commentary and performances from the 1961 Inaugural Concert held in Constitution Hall. Washington was paralyzed by a blizzard, and many of the guests (and performers) had difficulty making it to the concert. Even the President-Elect and First Lady had to walk to the event!

Color commentary from the Mutual Radio Network broadcast is included, and for me, that alone is worth the price of admission! Tony Martin, Bill Evanson, and Dorice Bell were professionals trained in a style of announcing that's now long out of fashion. Despite the chaotic nature of the concert that was somewhat improvised due to the weather, they remain unflappable, brilliantly describing the scene in clear, well-articulated sentences with every syllable rolling effortlessly and beautifully off their tongues.

And the music's a treat, too. Included is John La Montaine's work "From Sea to Shining Sea," commissioned for the event. Maestro Howard Mitchell and members of the National Symphony Orchestra (I don't think all the performers ever made it to the event)do a fine job with this pleasant occasional work.

Also included is part of Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom" a choral setting of Thomas Jefferson's writings, played with the composer in the audience! The work was to have been performed by the combined male choirs of the predominantly white Georgetown University Glee Club and the black Howard University Choir. A heavily symbolic performance that would have presaged an important stance of the new administration.

Unfortunately, the Howard choir was stuck in the snow, and so the work was only performed with the Georgetown U. Glee Club. The Glee Club sounds a little anemic -- those Howard voices were sorely missed. With the two choirs, I think the music would have had a greater impact. Still, the work's inclusion makes a nice compliment to disc one's "Remembering JFK."

The CD concludes with Earl Wild performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It's an interesting contrast to disc one's "Concerto in F." I don't know if Earl Wild is a necessarily a better technician than Tzimon Barto, but the music just seems to flow from his fingers. Wild captures the improvisatory nature of Gershwin's music, and manages to make this well-know work sound as if he's making it up on the spot. And the enthusiastic response by the audience confirms that this was indeed, a great performance.

Overall, "Remembering JFK" is a treasure. The commissioned works are welcome additions to the repertoire, the 2011 concert is immensely enjoyable, and the 1961 concert recording is a wonderful historical document to a truly exciting musical event.


  1. Thanks, Ralph, for your very thoughtful comments about this CD set. It was a great deal of fun to work on and I, too, appreciated the professional, disciplined on-air work by the Mutual hosts. I hope we get a chance to do more historical releases of this nature.

    May you have continued success in all your endeavors!

    All the best,


  2. A friend of mine was at the 2011 event and said it was spectacular.