Friday, July 22, 2011

A Review: Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert

Today, the eyes of all people are truly upon us - and our government ... at every level, must be as a city upon a hill - constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities. For those to whom much is given, much is required. - President-Elect John F. Kennedy 1961
These words are the first words that come to life within a spectacular piece of music that was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

Now, I don't have to remind you that I am truly am truly obsessed with news, politics and the like. I'm the guy who sets the DVR for pretty much any major news story that requires all day and/or all night coverage. I have to be totally honest, though ... specifically, I love a great news story that includes even the smallest amount of pomp and circumstance.

I can't help it - I'm Episcopalian. We love our pomp and circumstance.

If you take news, politics, pomp and circumstance and add to it a pinch of vintage '50s or '60 - I, my Friends, go completely bonkers. I mean over the moon. I mean wack-a-doodle.
obsession [uhb-sesh-uhn]: the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, etc. the state of being obsessed. the act of obsessing.
Yep. That pretty much covers all of the bases.

Imagine my delight when I received in the mail, a copy of the National Symphony Orchestra's CD Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert ... then, imagine the degree to which my delight turned to utter wack-a-doodleness when Yours Truly finds out that there's not only a CD of this year's concert conducted by Maestro Christoph Eschenbach - Oh no, Friends ... hold on to your seats - there is also a CD containing excerpts from the Mutual Broadcasting radio broadcast of JFK's actual Inaugural Concert - January 19, 1961.

I. Know. I about choked on my lunch, too.

Now, to the piece of music I was discussing earlier - as I said, Remembering JFK (An American Elegy) was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Written by Peter Lieberson, who was just a young lad when JFK was elected, Remembering JFK is certainly the cornerstone of the first disc in this stellar set.

Lieberson points out:
My generation took a certain kind of inspiration just in Kennedy's presence, in his words.
For his portrait of Kennedy, Lieberson drew on the inspiration of Kennedy's words by showcasing excerpts from three separate speeches, chronologically ordered. The first is from January 9, 1961 when then president-elect Kennedy addressed the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The second is from the January 20, 1961 Inaugural Address and the third is from June 10, 1963 when President Kennedy addressed the graduating class of American University. Again, Peter Lieberson:
There is an elegiac quality surrounding this inspirational figure, since in the end he was not able to accomplish so much of what he wanted. But there was also a practical element in his understanding of human nature that couples with the visionary. I chose speeches that reflect both.
The narration in these kinds of pieces can be tricky because one wants to hear the commanding authority of a president without an imitation of the man who spoke the words decades ago. In this case, the narration is provided to us by the very distinctive voice of Mr. Richard Dreyfuss - who does just that ... gives us the commanding authority without affectation.

Lieberson, who was born in 1946, grew up in a very artistic family. Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein were regular visitors to the Lieberson's Upper West Side, Manhattan home and certainly, the aura of Bernstein is evident from the very opening bars of the piece ... as are little flecks of Stravinsky.

Other pieces of note on this first disc in the set are George Gershwin's magnificently groovy Concerto in F, Leonard Bernstein's iconic Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and the 35 seconds long Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy also written by Bernstein.

Putting aside Mr. Americana, Aaron Copland, I can't imagine a better group of pieces to befittingly convey through music the delight, inspiration, encouragement, joy and true optimism that Kennedy's Inauguration brought to so many Americans.

The night before that inauguration 50 years ago, Howard Mitchell conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an Inaugural Concert in honor of the president-elect. The second disc in this set brings highlights from that concert - including marvelously vintage radio commentary by reporters from Mutual Broadcasting. Just to hear the radio commentary describing every detail with precision and depth warms the heart of this ardent admirer of the simpler, classier and swanky-er times ... times when all of the arts were seen as an essential part of American identity.

Less than a month before his assassination, President Kennedy gave a speech in honor of the memory of poet Robert Frost. It outlined his vision of the challenge that the arts must pose for a strong and flourishing democracy. He said in part:
I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist."
On this incredibly hot weekend in NYC, do yourself a huge favor get yourself a copy of this. Close the blinds. Turn the A/C just a little cooler. Pop it in the CD player - I recommend listening to disc #2 first, followed by disc #1.

Trust me when I say, you're sure to be inspired, enkindled, restored and to feel just a little cooler.

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