Caught an eclectic program of American composers from the NSO Saturday, led by the American conductor Sarah Hicks. John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," which predates Nixon in China but points to many of the familiar themes from the opera's third act, made for a strong opening. If the strings sounded frayed at times Hicks and the NSO captured the propulsive momentum and whiplash shifts that make the work tick.
Organist Cameron Carpenter then joined the band for Samuel Barber's towering 1960 Toccata Festiva. Carpenter's solo captivated in both the sensitive moments as well as the bravura pedal playing, accented by rhinestone-heeled organ boots. Carpenter wrapped up with an improvisation on Americana themes plus an encore improvisation incorporating the Beatles' Imagine tune. If the overall impression was slight, Carpenter kept things concise and its no small thrill to watch him work the stops.
The second half opened with a fine showpiece for orchestra, the rarely heard 1954 Danse Overture of Italian-American composer Paul Creston, teamed nicely with an ebullient reading of Copland's 1938 suite from his ballet Billy the Kid.
In between, we got a new work by Mason Bates, now Kennedy Center composer in residence, which melds orchestra music with...techno beatz. I can certainly appreciate why this sort of thing is catnip to the people tasked with writing sexy press releases about the orchestra but in practice it is pretty dreadful. I'd rather not go full curmudgeon on this, but everything from the amplification to the overbearing sense of trying too hard was deafening. This stuff kind of appeals in the way a hip movie soundtrack does, but as compelling concert music? Noap. Misfires aside, NSO deserves significant credit for the thoughtful programming...