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Moved to the new outdoor plaza, orchestrated pop competes with overhead jets


The pandemic has thrown traditional events like the National Symphony Orchestra's annual Labor Day concert for a loop for two years running. Held for years on the West Lawn of the Capitol, it had to be broadcast last year to an audience parked at RFK stadium, watching on screens and listening to their car radios.

This year's event Sunday wasn't held at the Capitol lawn either - for COVID reasons, officials said (and not security issues following January's insurrection attempt). So it was switched to the Kennedy Center's new outdoor REACH Plaza, which overflowed from its set up chairs to draw about 1,900 people. Because it was outdoors, masks were optional (and an option few chose) and chairs were placed closer than they had been in the last 20 months.

Better yet, the entire orchestra was present in their traditional seating, wearing white tops and black pants but no masks of any color. Woodwinds and brass were no longer segregated behind sheets of plexiglass as had sometimes been the case in recent months.

Under the direction of Lawrence Loh, the affable music director of West Virginia Symphony, the challenge was to present a program broad enough to please a large audience, some of whom may have never seen an NSO performance before.

It began and ended with patriotic standards - played better than you'll ever hear at a ballpark - with the "The Stars Spangled Banner" to begin and a rousing "Stars and Stripes Forever" bookending the program.

Labor Day doesn't really have any standards, as do other secular holidays, so Loh built a program from a variety of 20th and 21st century composers responding to exterior inspirations.

From Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Carlos Simon, who was in attendance in the second row, "The Block" was inspired by a single city block in Harlem and all of its bustling everyday activity, reflected in the dynamic, percussive piece.

Similarly, Jessie Montgomery's 2012 string piece "Starburst," inspired by galactic doings, was similarly jaunty.

In between, the standout for the first half of the program was a presentation of Duke Ellington's final, unfinished work "Three Kings," saluting Balthazar, Solomon and Martin Luther King. It was enlivened by a former member of Ellington's orchestra, who is now a professor at Howard University, Charlie Young, on a series of improvised sax solos.

It can't be overstated how much life he brought to the work, and to the evening with his commanding tones of his horn in the late summer night.

Loh closed his portion of the show with James Abel's 2001 Kennedy Center commission, that began as a request for an encore to Tchaikovsky 's Fourth Symphony but ended up as a tribute to 9/11 first responders. "Tribute," as it was named, was the first thing played by the NSO after the terrorist attack 20 years ago. It was the most solemn piece of the night, but not without some uplift.

That the balance of the concert, representing half the evening, was the music of Ben Folds may have been a surprise to some and a delight to others. The pop singer, who has been artistic adviser to the NSO since 2017, has largely organized concerts there featuring others. But he's a bona fide classical crossover artist, after his Concerto for Piano Orchestra hit No. 1 on Billboard classical and classical crossover charts.

Flying in from Australia, where he's been for most of the pandemic and finished a symphonic tour earlier this year, Folds has had some experience turning his piano-based pop into orchestral works and was happy to show some of the best of it in a five-song set from his three solo studio albums that began with "Capable of Anything."

"Fred Jones Part 2," about a 25 year newspaper writer leaving an office where none of the employees knew his name hit pretty close to home, but was effective.

Folds seemed lost stepping away from his piano for "Free Coffee," though he bent over to emphasize some chords at its end.

The full sweep of orchestral possibility was ultimately on display for his "Kylie from Connecticut" that took its agreeable piano melody and made it soar.

Orchestrating pop songs may be hard, so he couldn't adapt the setlist to songs that resonated with the news. His only Top 20 hit, "Brick," from the Ben Folds Five, was, after all, about an abortion. And his recent song about life in the pandemic, "2020," may have been all too new.

Folds had begun his portion of the evening saying "I haven't been in the public much" during the pandemic and "I don't know how to act."

But he ended well, with the former judge on "The Sing-Off" getting into his professorial / producer duties by coaxing the all-too-willing crowd to bring three part-harmony behind his concluding "Not the Same" -- encouraging humming because "It's not a great idea to be spraying 'ah's over everybody right now."

Folds was a good sport about the concert's more overriding interruptions - jet plane roars every five minutes (Can we just say the Kennedy Center REACH, within minutes reach of National Airport, is a terrible place for a concert?).

Such were the odd audio turns for a free outdoor musical event, where bluetooth boom boxes could be heard blasting somewhere a couple of times, and dogs barked during quiet sessions. Perhaps with some luck and more vaccinations, the 2022 NSO Labor Day concert can return to the Wast Lawn of the Capitol's quieter no-fly zone.

Running time: One hour, 40 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Ben Folds and Lawrence Loh at Kennedy Center REACH. Photo by Roger Catlin.

Ben Folds will return to be part of the Kennedy Center's 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert Sept. 14. The Ben Folds "In Action Person for Real Tour" plays the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Nov. 15. Tickets available online.

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