Thunder strikes onstage and off as NSO marks a half-century at Wolf Trap

Fri Jul 02, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Soprano Christine Goerke was among the soloists at the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert marking 50 years at Wolf Trap Thursday night, conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Photo: Abram Eric Landes

Fifty years ago Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts presented its first concert in the suburbs of Washington, on land donated by Catherine Filene Shouse. Friday night, the National Symphony Orchestra celebrated its partnership with Wolf Trap, its summer residence for the park’s entire history, on the exact anniversary of that event and in the theater bearing Mrs. Shouses’s middle name.

The conductor, JoAnn Falletta, and the soloists were all women, a tribute to the leadership of Mrs. Shouse in establishing the nation’s only national park for the performing arts. The grand tradition of listening to the NSO perform outdoors in the elements continued, in spite of a gullywasher of a storm that blew through in the middle of the concert.

Aptly the program featured the full NSO, heard for the first time since February 2020. It opened with Michael Torke’s Javelin, an overture-length movement commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1994. The commission came from the Atlanta Olympic Committee, and the piece was also performed in 1996 at the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics. The thrill of athletic competition felt apropos for this occasion, too.

Hearing broad symphonic power was an emotional experience after so many months of online, reduced performances: massed strings sharing desks again, bubbling streams of woodwinds, the blaring swell of the brass, swoops of harp and glints of percussion. Falletta maximized the excitement with a quick and incisive beat, threading the needle through metric shifts, occasioning a stray early entrance at one point. Chalk it up to bottled-up enthusiasm.

Soprano and Wolf Trap Opera Company alumna Christine Goerke only added to the sonic power, in a big Hollywood arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” She invited the audience to stand and sing along on the final verse, adding a blistering conclusion in the stratosphere. The summer pops feel of the concert continued at the end of Goerke’s set with a beautiful rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music by Richard Rodgers.

In the middle came an astounding combination of orchestral sheen and dramatic soprano energy in “Voi lo sapete o mama,” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Goerke gave a raw emotional edge to Santuzza’s confessional aria, the burnished tone communicating poignant shame and anguish. The molten chest voice in the concluding phrases seared the heart.

There were projected photos about Wolf Trap’s history, accompanied by speeches from Falletta and the artists, as the piano was brought in for Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante. At the keyboard Joyce Yang’s left hand murmured serenely, while her right glided in rhythmic freedom, unwinding complex polyphonic lines in the rapt silence of the summer evening, the calm before the storm.

In the fast concluding section of the piece, Yang somehow kept her concentration focused as a fast-moving storm front swept over the area. Spectators on the lawn, drenched within a few seconds by flash flood-inducing rain, screamed and ran for cover. While thunder rumbled and rain blew in the sides of the theater, Yang remained admirably focused, swirling out dizzying runs and fulminating lightning-bolt strikes up the treble range.

For the final set, Cynthia Erivo offered orchestral arrangements of popular songs, all made famous by great women artists. Erivo had the vocal goods to channel Aretha Franklin brilliantly in Ronnie Shannon’s “I Never Loved a Man” and Carolyn Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.” Two other songs, “I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good” bore the imprint of Nina Simone, brash and unrelenting.

A high point came with “I (Who Have Nothing),” an Italian song associated in its English version with Shirley Bassey. Erivo’s puissant high notes communicated the rage of the wronged woman, a pop counterpart to the grievance of the operatic Santuzza sung by Goerke earlier in the evening. Erivo concluded the concert with a pleasing encore, her own song released last month, “The Good,” in an orchestral arrangement heard for the first time.

The NSO returns to Wolf Trap with conductor Jonathon Heyward and violinist Francesca Dego 8 p.m. July 8 and 9.


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