Anne Akiko Meyers and National Symphony Orchestra whip up a storm



This guy right here loves a theme. When orchestras build a night of music around a central idea — be it a topic, a color, an era, a season — it offers listeners a comfy couch of context that allows us to settle in and feel situated. Having a theme also allows us to hear pieces of music in fresh dialogue with one another.

More to the point of this review, sometimes a theme just provides a good enough excuse to invite old friends over for a party, as was the case with the National Symphony Orchestra’s “Wind & Wave” concert on Thursday (repeating Friday and Saturday nights). This sea-and-sky-inspired selection brought together works from Richard Wagner (the overture to “Der fliegende Holländer”), Samuel Barber (“Night Flight”) and Claude Debussy (“La Mer”).

The “new guy” at this party was composer Michael Daugherty, whose “Blue Electra” — a four-movement violin concerto dedicated to Amelia Earhart — received a thrilling world premiere via soloist Anne Akiko Meyers.

Hearing the NSO play the overture to “Der fliegende Holländer” made me wish the orchestra wrangled with Wagner more frequently. Maestro Gianandrea Noseda ably steered its titanic surges — the brass section was in fine form through the overture’s various catastrophes. And in its fleeting clearings, delightfully diaphanous woodwinds and flutes told the tale. Most exciting were the tight swells of momentum Noseda sculpted from the strings into menacing waves that seemed to slap the walls of the hall.

Noseda, proud to have nailed the pronunciation of Amelia Earhart’s name, seemed equally excited to premiere Daugherty’s “Blue Electra.” “This, until now,” he said from the stage, “doesn’t exist.”

It’s a stunning, cinematic and relentlessly inventive stretch of music. In the first movement (“Courage”) — based on a poem Earhart wrote before her first trans-Atlantic flight — a searching two-note motif extends into a cinematic airborne journey. Meyers, who commissioned the concerto from Daugherty, occupied its pocket like a cockpit, her violin a lonely voice adrift in a vast expanse. Her lines stretched into filament-thin streaks and soared to heights I squinted to hear.

The second movement (“Paris”) evokes Earhart’s skyrocketing international acclaim (her reception of the Legion of Honor from the French government) through a boisterous scherzo that sounds piped in from a soiree at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. (The cat-and-mouse final moments of this movement had folks tracking the sound onstage like the ball at a tennis match.)

Its third movement (“From an Airplane”) — inspired by another of the pilot’s poems — takes an eerier turn. Lonely oboes and searchlight strings plumb a darkness. A dark clobber of marimba underscores the music like turbulence as bursts of brass add surges of fuel. Meyers’s lines grew icy and severe, distant and distinct, a contrail mingling with the cirrus clouds.

But it was the finale (“Last Flight, 1937”) that hung in my head long after the night had ended. It attempts to depict Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe, that flight that ended in her disappearance. Some of Meyers’s finest, most intricate (and most aerial) playing was reserved for this finish, but my favorite part of her whole performance was the piece’s simplest ask: a straight monotone G that rose from her instrument and spread across the string section. Over a rolling snare, the note ramped up in volume and sharpened in texture. It was speed and stasis at once, terminating in a shock of silence. (Call it G-force.)

Barber’s “Night Flight” was the other great highlight. Originally the second movement from his withdrawn second symphony of 1944, “Night Flight” has survived as a stand-alone work, and for good reason. It’s a wonderfully complex and surprisingly compact work, a showcase of his mastery of unusual harmonic collisions and unsayable emotional states (especially in its core of pining, shining strings). Kathryn Meany Wilson gave a beautiful solo on English horn — tracing the path of a plane through darkness. Pianist Lambert Orkis handled the dark undulations of thick nightfall, and Paul Cigan on E-flat clarinet manned the “radio-beam” that reaches the pilot through the music.

Noseda brought a lovely lightness to “La Mer,” Debussy’s impressionistic sketch of the sea, composed between 1903 and 1905. A dawn of gossamer strings glowed in its opening movement (“De l’aube à midi sur la mer”), with concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef in gorgeous dialogue with the woodwinds. Throughout, Noseda limned Debussy’s watercolor seascape with accentuated details — the froth of cymbals, the spray of chimes, the lapping (and overlapping) rhythms of the waves. The dual harps of this piece, beautifully played by Adriana Horne and Megan Hoeflicker, were also a special treat. It’s not easy to perform this piece with the control it requires while maintaining the feel of Debussy’s sea, with its unpredictable sways and swells. It was a marvelous closer.

So here’s the thing. As pleasing as the music was throughout the night, walking home and sweating through my shirt on an unseasonably warm November evening, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been amiss.

To painstakingly put together a program titled “Wind & Wave” and somehow neglect to include any mention of climate, or any of the growing number of contemporary orchestral works explicitly dealing with climate change, seems like more than a missed opportunity. It’s an embarrassing oversight — one that smacks of the same casual dismissal of climate concerns that brought us to this brink in the first place.

And it’s not like there’s a lack of material. To the extent that contemporary composers are concerned with “topics,” climate is primary among them, but you’d never know it from the way new music is spooned to the public one taste at a time.

An entire “Wind & Wave” program could be devised around strong, exciting works such as Michael Abels’s “Global Warming,” Lei Liang’s “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams,” Maja S.K. Ratkje’s “Paragraph 112,” or John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Become Ocean.”

This is music that can’t sit around for 50 years aging like cheese. Why aren’t we making room for this conversation to happen? The time is now, and we owe it to ourselves to listen. Otherwise, we’re all just talking about the weather.

Wind & Wave repeats Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

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