Begun 75 years ago as a cooperative of Washington, D.C.-area musicians, the National Symphony Orchestra has grown to become an integral part of Washington culture‹and as the nation's orchestra, it continues to play a vital role in making the capital a cultural mecca.
In tribute to its 75th anniversary, Music Director Leonard Slatkin and the NSO have designed the 2005-2006 season with the aim of celebrating its future and honoring its past. The Orchestra will perform classic favorites performed as well as world premieres, a stunning array of performers will make their NSO debuts, and world-class guest soloists and famed conductors will make return visits.
On January 31, 1930, "The National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C." made its debut as part of a three-concert trial season. Conductor Hans Kindler became the Music Director (1931-1949) and established the NSO as Washington's resident symphony the following year, launching its first full season on November 2, 1931, at Constitution Hall.
The first notes played by the NSO in its 1931 debut concert were from Weber's Overture to Der Freischütz. The 75th Anniversary Season Opening Ball Concert on September 24 recalls that moment with Music Director Leonard Slatkin leading a performance of the same composition.
In 1949, Howard Mitchell (1949-1969) began the longest tenure of any NSO music director to date. Few conductors anywhere have equaled his extraordinary commitment to community outreach and education. Under his leadership, the NSO presented "Young People's" and "Tiny Tots" concerts, and a groundbreaking series called "Music for Young America," which offered programs free to school groups visiting the Washington area.
This season, the Orchestra has added NSO Teddy Bear Concerts, a new series for small children and their cuddly friends. On November 13-21 the NSO hosts a weeklong Education Celebration featuring performances and activities designed especially for children.
Even during its formative beginnings, touring has always been a major component of the NSO's schedule. As early as 1939, the Washington Post was applauding the Orchestra for "taking the masterpieces of music to the people. In helping meet the need‹and the increasing demand‹for good music throughout the United States, the National Symphony Orchestra is filling a mission as great as the one it fulfills in the Capital itself."
Over the years, the NSO has played at the Acropolis, in Red Square, and in the world's greatest concert halls. This season, the Orchestra travels coast to coast during two tours, with stops in California and Nevada (October 18-29), and Nebraska, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York (March 28-April 8).
In the early years, the NSO would typically tour New England during the winter holidays. In the spring, it would head south. Memorable performances along the way included the Orchestra's first concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall on February 2, 1941; later that December, the musicians were in Massachusetts when Pearl Harbor was attacked. For the remainder of its tour, the Orchestra opened every concert with a rousing performance of The Star-Spangled Banner.
The NSO's 2002 Journey to America festival featured more than 24 different arrangements of the national anthem. This season's Opening Ball Concert commences with a newly commissioned arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner by renowned composer and arranger Rob Mathes.
Music Director Antal Doráti (1970-1977) successfully increased the artistic quality of the NSO and substantially expanded its repertoire by adding staple works by Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner, and Mahler, as well as compositions by less well-known composers, to the orchestra's programs. He was also especially active in commissioning new works, most notably a series by American composers, created to honor the nation's bicentennial in 1976.
During the NSO's 50th season, Music Director Mstislav Rostropovich (1977-1994) presided over the Orchestra. Nicknamed "Slava," which means "glory" in his native Russia, superstar Rostropovich brought to the Orchestra a sense of glamour, excitement, color, and passion. Now the NSO's Conductor Laureate, he joins in the Orchestra's 75th celebration on April 27-29 with a program that includes Leonard Bernstein's tribute to him, Slava!, A Political Overture.
Since joining the NSO as Music Director in 1996, Slatkin has championed the Orchestra's commitment to community outreach and artistic development. He has been praised in Washington and around the world for his imaginative programming, advocacy for music education, and promotion of American music and musicians.
Through the generosity of the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works and The ASCAP Foundation, the Orchestra has commissioned more than 50 works, including cycles of fanfares and encores, which, taken as a whole, are representative of the diverse influences in American composition today.
Reflecting this commitment, this season features world premieres of three NSO commissions‹Rip Van Winkle by David Del Tredici (NSO Family, November 20), Missa Latina by Roberto Sierra (NSO Classical, February 2-4; co-commissioned by The Choral Arts Society of Washington), and Morning's Embrace by Joseph Schwanter (NSO Classical, February 23-25)‹as well as many other American works, which will be performed in the Concert Hall and on the Orchestra's two U.S. tours.
This season promises to be a special one, showcasing all that has made the Orchestra a truly remarkable national institution for the past 75 years and celebrating the legacy of excellence it carries into the future.
For more information and special features, visit the official 75th Anniversary Web site at nationalsymphony.org/75.
Jeremy D. Birch is the writer and editor of Kennedy Center News.