Las Vegas Philharmonic will mark 50th anniversary of Kennedy assassination

The program’s the same, but the conductor on the podium has changed for the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Saturday Masterworks concert, themed “Love of Country.”

Planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the concert finale — Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major — represents the Philharmonic’s first Beethoven performance at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall.

Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” and Peter Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK: An American Elegy” — the latter featuring former Sen. Richard Bryan as guest narrator — join “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the program, which will open with the Nellis Air Force Base honor guard.

Steven Jarvi, one of the candidates for the Philharmonic’s vacant post of music director, was instrumental in planning Saturday’s program, says Jennifer Scott, the Philharmonic’s communications manager.

But the birth of Jarvi’s first child last week prompted the conductor — who led the Philharmonic’s February Mardi Gras pops concert — to cancel.

“Luckily, we are in the middle of a music director search,” Scott points out, enabling the Philharmonic to replace him with another music director candidate: conductor George Hanson, now music director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

This past week, Hanson was in Germany — and unavailable for an interview — but he was scheduled to return to Tucson, Ariz., over the weekend and arrive in Las Vegas to oversee this week’s rehearsals before Saturday’s concert, Scott says. (Hanson also will offer a concert preview at 6:45 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Hall.)

“We’re very lucky in that the repertoire is Beethoven,” she says. “It would be rare to find a conductor who wasn’t familiar with the symphony.”

And not just any symphony, but one with a direct connection to the tragedy Saturday’s concert commemorates.

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, maestro Erich Leinsdorf was leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s regular Friday afternoon concert, which also was broadcast on radio.

Before the concert began, word had reached Boston’s Symphony Hall that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. After hearing news reports of Kennedy’s death during the concert’s first half, orchestra officials determined to continue the concert, but with a change in program — to the “Eroica’s” second movement, an all-too-appropriate “Marcia Funebre (Funeral March).”

Librarians pulled the orchestral parts from the shelves and brought them to the stage door. Leinsdorf walked onstage and addressed the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it: The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.”

Following the audience’s collective gasp, Leinsdorf announced, “We will play the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Third Symphony,” triggering another round of outcries and groans — a fitting prelude to the dark, dirgelike chords that launch the movement.

Even without those historical echoes, however, the “Eroica” ranks as a “pinnacle symphony,” says violinist De Ann Letourneau, the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, who leads the orchestra’s first violins.

Beethoven’s 1804 symphony, written in the middle of the composer’s life, offers “pure sound,” Letourneau says.

“It is so great — you’ll never get tired of playing it,” she says. “It’s like playing a really great Mozart or a really great Brahms — you feel like you’ve had a really great meal.”

Lieberson’s “Remembering JFK” includes excerpts from three stirring Kennedy speeches, which is a good thing, says narrator Bryan, because he doesn’t “read a note of music at all,” he confesses.

“All the conductor has to do is point at me and I read the lines,” he says.

The charismatic Kennedy’s presidency represented a passing of the torch to a new generation of leadership, Bryan says, noting that he was the first American president born in the 20th century. His election “kind of gave us a vision for the future and reminded us of our responsibility,” he adds, but also provided “hope and opportunity” — all of which ended with his assassination.

“This youthful president with much promise” reflected a different America, Bryan says, one where “our reach was unlimited — and his life was snuffed out.”

As for the impact of Kennedy’s assassination on the nation, “devastating is the word — it was just shattering,” he says. “After 1963, America was a different place.”

Saturday’s program reflects that shock to the system, in Letourneau’s view.

“If you really step into the emotion behind each of these pieces,” she says.

The result will be powerful, she adds, partly because music has an impact no other genre of art can touch.

“With music, you can feel the vibration. … The chord that touches you is so powerful.”

And that remains true regardless of who’s on the podium, Letourneau maintains.

“It’s really fun to see these different conductors, with different personalities, bring out a different sound” in the orchestra, the concertmaster says. “The music’s all the same — it’s how we express it” that’s different.

She says she and her fellow Philharmonic members are excited about the search for a new musical director, which is expected to end by next spring.

“Who is it going to be? Who’s going to be the new leader? It’s fun to have multiple conductors,” Letourneau says, citing the ultimate goal: find a music director “who fits our orchestra and fits our vision.”

And that, Scott says, remains the top priority for the Philharmonic’s search committee.

“It is like dating,” she says. “We want to like them, but they have to like us, too. The most important relationship is the one the music director has with the musicians.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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