Philharmonic pays tribute to patriotism, JFK

Saturday’s Las Vegas Philharmonic program shared a theme, “Love of Country,” but spanned three centuries in the process. Two Beethoven works were composed in the early 1800s, a little-known piece by American composer George Walker dates from 1946, and Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK” had its premiere in 2011.

In keeping with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the concert was preceded by a presentation of the colors by an honor guard from Nellis Air Force Base and soprano Ellie Smith singing our national anthem.” The anthem featured a new and special arrangement and orchestration that were fresh and effective.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture” began the program. By the time the overture was finished the play for which it was intended had ended its run in Vienna. It is likely the play and its overture were heard together only once. The spirit of the brief (seven minute) work begins with triumph but leads to indecision and turmoil, ending in a sense of self-destruction.

Then came, in stark contrast, George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” a lush and lovely showpiece for string orchestra. In introducing the work, guest conductor George Hanson characterized it as being “…the most beautiful work you’ve never heard.” He’s right. “Lyric for Strings” should have found its way into the mainstream repertoire by now.

Ending the concert’s first half was Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK,” subtitled “An American Elegy” for orchestra and narrator. It premiered in Washington, D. C., in January 2011, with the National Symphony Orchestra and Morgan Freeman as narrator, a role filled on Saturday by Sen. Richard Bryan. Bryan was convincing at the outset, but seemed to lose some focus as the work progressed. Two possible reasons are: 1) Lieberson built in too many breaks in the text, breaks that might be more effective if used more sparingly; and 2) both conductor and narrator appeared to grow more uncertain as the piece progressed.

Peter Lieberson was the son of Goddard Lieberson, a composer and recording industry executive. He was married to award-winning mezzo soprano, the late Lorraine Hunt.

Following intermission the program’s second half was given to another Beethoven work, his “Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major,” the “Eroica.” The first movement is designed to reflect tension throughout, but despite the orchestra’s technical accomplishment, that tension did not come across with consistency. The second movement, a funeral march, is seen as a stark contrast with the first. A brooding intensity that is called for appeared only intermittently throughout. The composer achieved that contrast by building in a sense of profound sadness. On Saturday that sense escaped us.

It is this funereal movement alone that is often suitably identified with the grim events of Nov. 22, 1963. The entire symphony, however, has never seemed sufficiently somber to represent the Kennedy tragedy. A sprightly Scherzo followed by an allegro finale of several variations brings the “Eroica” to a suitable close.

Saturday’s conductor, George Hanson, is music director of Arizona’s Tucson Symphony. He took Saturday’s assignment on short notice in place of Steven Jarvi who was originally scheduled as guest conductor. Hanson boasts an impressive track record of orchestral experience and has worked with a roster of top-flight artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin, Joshua Bell and Lang Lang, among others.