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Friday, May 16, 2014

Skies light up after timpanist plays at the Kennedy Center

At the Kennedy Center guests who attend performances by the National Symphony Orchestra see and hear shows indoors and out/Photo by Patricia Leslie

At intermission Tuesday night, guests attending the National Symphony Orchestra performance streamed out onto the veranda at the Kennedy Center to catch a breath of fresh air, to sip beverages, admire the scenery, and praise the performance of timpanist Jauvon Gilliam who had just finished, in vigorous fashion, Timpani Concerto No. 1, "The Olympian," by James Oliverio (b. 1956).

Jauvon Gilliam/Photo from

At the conclusion of the piece moments earlier in the Concert Hall, the composer came up on stage and joined Mr. Gilliam and guest conductor Thomas Wilkins to receive enthusiastic applause and shouts of "Bravo!" from the audience.

Mr. Gilliam, the NSO's principal timpanist and also guest principal timpanist for the Budapest Festival Orchestra, had pounded the eight kettledrums which encircled him at the front of the stage, swirling in his chair and making music with what seemed like four hands.  He waved his sticks like a juggler tossing flames, with arms that sometimes flashed behind him.

The combinations of jazz, dance, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin made for a spectacular presentation in the inauguration of the NSO's series "New Moves:  symphony + dance," the latter expertly supplied by members of Katie Smythe's New Ballet Ensemble from Memphis. 

Now in its eleventh year, the New Ballet comprises children from different social and economic backgrounds, those who cannot afford to pay for dance training and those who can, to learn professional dance on their way to stage careers.  Several alums have already made it up.

Thomas Wilkins, conductor of the Omaha National Symphony and principal guest conductor for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, had no trouble leading the NSO. Indeed, every time he turned around to face the audience, a broad smile brightened his face.

Thomas Wilkins/Photo from the Omaha Symphony Orchestra

Selections from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin (1898-1937) with arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) got the show off to a stellar start, leading me to wonder if the best was saved for first, but it was an introduction to all the evening's finery which lay ahead, including the fantastic Martin Luther King from a ballet composition, Three Black Kings by Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and arranged by Luther Henderson (1919-2003). Ellington died before he finished Kings, and his son, Mercer, completed the piece. 

(Up against the night's competition, Souvenirs, Op. 28 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was a trifle uninteresting.)

All this served to build anticipation for the night's climax, the debut of Ellington's Harlem ballet, commissioned by the NSO and the Kennedy Center.
New Ballet Ensemble dance Harlem with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts/Photo by Scott Suchman

Dressed in Sunday clothes for Harlem's streets (except for one lass wearing a long dress who may have just stepped off the train from Kansas), the young performers exuded confidence and grace that belied their years and made viewers aware of their futures as career performers.

The choreography had some gaps, namely, the frequent freezes-in-positions which left the majority of the nine dancers stationary and motionless while one, two, or three colleagues twirled around them.  The ballet was far more enjoyable when all nine danced, like the old-fashioned way.

I wondered what a Porgy and Bess ballet would be like and discovered the Dallas Black Dance Theatre brought it to the Kennedy Center in 1998.

The combination dance and music series continues this weekend with compositions by John Adams and Aaron Copland and performances by violinist Leila Josefowicz and Jessica Lang's Dance Company.

This summer will find Maestro Wilkins, a Norfolk, Virginia native, in the area again when he conducts the NSO at Wolf Trap August 2 with guest artist, Yo-Yo Ma.  At last check, only lawn spaces remained.  Take your back brace.

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