Ideally, a long-awaited return after tragedy will take momentous form. For many – from audience members to the artists themselves – the National Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday evening program was the first time back after the pandemic swept the world. With a world premiere by Peter Boyer and a stunning Beethoven Third Piano Concerto deftly played by Lang Lang, the evening didn’t fail to strike a poignantly significant chord.

Thomas Wilkins, composer Peter Boyer and the NSO
© Dan Chung

Commissioned for the 90th anniversary season of the NSO and composed in honor of Dr Henry Kissinger’s 95th birthday, “Balance of Power” opened the night going well beyond an appropriate gravitas for both occasions. The three movements peer less into Kissinger’s biography than they do the overall weight of the man himself; this isn’t Nixon in China’s historical (albeit liberally operatic) recreation, but an aural portrait of an enormously consequential figure in history. Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who led with a straight-laced yet avid warmth, was an ideal arbiter.

Beginning with A Sense of History, harp and horns spun scenes of destiny, promise and grandeur as a big theme emerged, and although the tempo marking picked up, open intervals rang out calmly – there’s no hurry here, a sentiment reflecting Kissinger’s own marked precision. The second movement, A Sense of Humor (Scherzo politico), attended to Kissinger’s noted wit using cheeky grace notes that circled half-step repeated figures separated at key moments by the triangle, a sound unmistakably from the Marx Brothers era of comedy. With flute and percussion doubling a jovial line before bass brass, strings and timpani boomed in, A Sense of Direction closed the work with just a hint of over-determined passion, but the emotional response the work elicited was undeniable. 

Lang Lang and the National Symphony Orchestra
© Dan Chung

Bookended by two relatively modern American composers on the program, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor settled into the evening’s order with a promise to channel a time-honored era. Not so with Lang Lang on the bench. Composed between 1797 and 1803, this concerto is an early Romantic masterpiece when someone meticulously performs it as written. And though, of course, many pianists have taken liberties over the years, none have remade the work quite as Lang Lang did. With its extended orchestral introduction, the Allegro con brio didn’t seem, at first, to be anything beyond the genius it inherently is, but Lang Lang’s entrance soon transformed the moment. He often played as if hearing each note and exploring it for the first time, passing it from hand to hand and looking at it in wonder. Among many technical masteries, his dynamic control – and I really mean absolute control – was foundational in his transformational power. I didn't know true pianissimo until last night.

Hanson’s “Romantic” Second Symphony, which premiered in 1930, held clear and obvious ties to the American sentimentalism opening the program. Unlike Balance of Power, it veers more into conflict, tonally and structurally, but the essence of history and direction remained in force to close the night with an undeniable sense of fruition.  

True, the pandemic is not out of sight or mind yet, as evidenced by a few new precautions that patrons must take when attending an event at the Kennedy Center this fall (and that delayed the concert’s start by about 30 minutes). But whatever small hiccups those might elicit are surely worth it if it means we can safely experience live music together again. When Boyer returned to his seat after receiving a joyous standing ovation, a young boy shyly approached him from across the aisle. After bending down to hear his words amid the din, the composer simply hugged him. That gracious act was an impulse felt across the theatre, motivated by sheer happiness but also relief after months of merely being able to hope.