- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2007

The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, offered a pumped-up program of spectacular aural fireworks Thursday evening, coupling Jefferson Friedman’s otherworldly “Sacred Heart: Explosion” with a speedballing interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”).

Young American composer Friedman seems to have a thing about visionary religious art. His last foray, based on a folk-art sculpture, premiered here by maestro Slatkin and the NSO in 2004.

The composer’s current effort, inspired by an apocalyptic folk-art watercolor painting, got an initial tryout by the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra in 2001. Its considerably reworked score, commissioned by the NSO and funded by a Hechinger family gift, debuts at these concerts.

Henry Darger (1892-1973) worked unobtrusively as a janitor and at other menial jobs and kept his wildly fantastic Christian visions to himself. One of his posthumously discovered watercolor paintings, “Sacred Heart: Explosion,” inspired Mr. Friedman’s musical vision.

A photo of the picture, helpfully projected outside the hall, reveals a diptych of angelic hosts circling the Sacred Heart of Jesus, festooned with young schoolgirls, some brandishing rifles and bayonets against the backdrop of an explosive Armageddon. The figures are reminiscent of early 20th-century comic strips such as Buster Brown, Little Nemo and Little Orphan Annie.

Mr. Friedman’s composition is what used to be called a tone poem. Rather than trying to literally interpret the unknowable, the composer renders a musical impression of Mr. Darger’s vision in a score pulsating with slides, quavering quarter tones and shimmering percussion. Hymn tunes randomly burble up from the musical undercurrent, often to “explode” in triumph.

The work owes much of its approach to compositions such as Charles Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark,” in which honky-tonk melodies randomly emerge from the dissonant canvas of big-city life.

“Sacred Heart” is thoroughly modern, highly intelligent music, and the NSO performed it with great enthusiasm.

The Beethoven 9th that followed was an interpretation blending Mr. Slatkin’s fascination with Mahler’s quirky reorchestration of the work, mixed with faster tempos favored by the late conductors Arturo Toscanini and Robert Shaw.

The result, though probably offensive to Beethoven purists, created an intriguing counterpoint with “Sacred Heart,” offering both works as glorious, ecstatic and heroically religious visions.

The headlong pace taken by Mr. Slatkin, particularly in the second movement, occasionally found players trying to catch up with the rest of the pack. On the other hand, both his approach and Mahler’s slightly over-the-top instrumental enhancements worked well in the viscerally thrilling choral finale.

This was as much due to the players’ efforts as the dynamite performance by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, which seemed, appropriately, to be on fire with enthusiasm and joy.

The featured soloists, soprano Measha Brueggergosman, mezzo Susanne Mentzer, tenor Richard Croft and bass Morris Robinson, were all quite good, although Miss Brueggergosman’s powerful instrument occasionally overwhelmed the ensemble. Mr. Robinson’s dramatic, proclamatory entrance in the fourth movement was as good as it gets.

***

WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of works by Friedman and Beethoven

WHEN: Tonight at 8

WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall

TICKETS: $20 to $80

PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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