Sunday, October 31, 2004

The National Symphony Orchestra opened last weekend’s series of concerts at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday with Leonard Slatkin at the helm and an intriguing program highlighting the world premiere of a new American work that describes in sound what is perhaps Washington’s most fantastic piece of indigenous religious folk art.

Composed by Jefferson Friedman, 30, who currently resides in New York, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly,” is named after a sculpture crafted by the late James Hampton. Working as a General Services Administration janitor from the end of World War II until his death in 1964, Mr. Hampton cobbled his “Throne” together in an old garage at 1133 N St. NW. It was at once a statement of his mystical religious beliefs and a labor of love.

After being acquired by the Smithsonian, it was exhibited in the Museum of American Art before that building’s renovation. Now it resides in a museum in Williamsburg, according to the composer’s post-concert remarks.

After constructing “Throne” from used furniture, burnt-out light bulbs, cardboard and other found items that most people would consider junk, Mr. Hampton covered the objects with fancy purple paper and gold and silver foils, evolving an incredible assemblage resembling a royal throne festooned with meticulously ornamented side altars. Even today it appears to glow with an otherworldly light somehow generated from within.

Mr. Friedman’s 20-minute work comes surprisingly close to a musical rendering of this incredible sculpture. Built roughly in two reflecting parts, it opens with shimmering tonal builds highlighted in the trumpets, harps and percussion, unfolding into an aurora borealis of sound mirroring the found objects as they are transformed by their foil wrappings into divine touchstones of sublime beauty.

As the first part of the work fades, the character of the music morphs into an ever-building religious chorale reminiscent of old folk hymns. The chorale is transformed into a grand, peaceful apocalypse that folds quietly back into itself as the work concludes.

Mr. Friedman’s work is further evidence that America’s younger composers are trying to recover their musical heritage, albeit in new ways. Astoundingly successful in rendering a complex work of art into music, “Throne” demonstrates the influences of classical technique, the grandeur of movie music and church hymns, and the interesting efflorescence of post-punk sensibility. Perhaps this country’s long draught of listenable classical music is now coming to an end. This work, frankly, is a keeper.

“Throne” was a novel highlight in a thoroughly enjoyable program that also included George Gershwin’s popular “Piano Concerto in F” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7.”

Once derided as a pop phenomenon unworthy of the concert hall, the “Piano Concerto in F” has become a fixture in the repertoire as it should have been long ago. Popular pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet gave it a spirited performance, balancing Gershwin’s witty sallies against statements from the various orchestral sections, concluding in the work’s brilliant, trilling finale.

The concert concluded with a feisty performance of the Beethoven 7th. Bursting with invention, the symphony is probably one of the composer’s most popular works. The NSO gave it a rousing performance, although the finale was a bit too brisk for this writer’s taste.



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