American composer John Adams appeared on the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, continuing a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center devoted to his music that began with Jennifer Koh’s recital on Sunday. Composers are possibly too close to their own work to know how to treat it objectively, as a conductor must, to obtain the best result. Yet a composer-led performance, precisely because of that subjectivity, can also tell you something unique about what the composer was thinking.
The Adams-on-Adams treatment was applied to “The Wound-Dresser,” a 1988 symphonic setting of Walt Whitman’s recollections of his service as a caregiver to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals along Washington’s National Mall. It was not necessarily the work one most wanted to hear from Adams, not least because he also conducted it in a similar program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The piece can be powerful on first hearing, but after repeated listening its extended elegiac tone can become static. The orchestra played the pulsing chords elegantly, with electronic synthesizer touches recalling the timbre of a glass harmonica. Eric Owens lent a smooth, intense bass-baritone to the vocal part, supported by ghostly violin solos and anguished, disembodied cries from the solo trumpet that strained painfully into the stratosphere.