NSO’s ‘Blackstar Symphony’ pays proper tribute to David Bowie


Upon entering the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday, it was clear the place had undergone some slight ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. (Sorry.)

The air was misty with artificial fog. The walls behind the tiers were subtly striped with long gray drapes. The stage was bathed in pinks, purples and blues (what the kids call bisexual lighting). And the audience demographics were all over the place, an intergenerational mix that eluded easy categorization — i.e., Bowie fans.

The occasion was the “Blackstar Symphony,” an orchestral treatment of David Bowie’s final album, released two days before his death in 2016. The project is the brainchild of saxophonist Donny McCaslin — who led the quartet that lent the album “Blackstar” its surreal noir core — and conductor/composer Jules Buckley, who led the National Symphony Orchestra through a full account of Bowie’s 26th and final album, plus a handful of his best-loved hits.

Orchestral tributes to pop stars are not normally what I’d consider my bag. Often times, these pop-enhancement scenarios reduce the orchestra to a thickening agent. And the staging on Friday — with the orchestra clad in black, cloaked in darkness, and cordoned off by panels of Plexiglas — honestly had me worried.

But, for one thing, my resistance to tributes will never overpower my attraction to all things Bowie. The NSO could have announced that we were all going to hang out and watch “Labyrinth” and I’d have shown up with extra eyeliner and popcorn.

And the concert, which repeats Saturday night, cast new light on an album that deserves (and rewards) closer listening, expanding its sonic palette with thoughtfully arranged orchestrations by Buckley, Michael R. Dudley Jr., Vince Mendoza, Maria Schneider, Jamshied Sharifi and longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti.

The bracing recasting of several old favorites by Buckley, Sharifi and Tim Davies expertly captured Bowie’s uncanny alchemy of grief and hope. Unexpectedly, this seemingly simple tribute show dealt an unexpected emotional gut-punch. Turns out that in the year 2024, revisiting Bowie’s legacy — and, by extension, his death — is not for the faint of heart.

Most of the quartet Bowie put together to record “Blackstar” was reassembled on stage: McCaslin on saxophone along with keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre. (Drummer Mark Guiliana made a fine stand-in for “Blackstar” drummer Nate Wood.)

Vocal duties (talk about under pressure!) were split between the trio of Bowie’s longtime bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey (relentlessly dazzling), vocalist David Poe (whose emulations of Bowie were more formal than functional), and actor, director and lifelong Bowiephile John Cameron Mitchell (whose channeling of Bowie’s meticulously unbuttoned charm was as flawless as the pleats of his Thom Browne skirt).

Mendoza’s arrangement of the shape-shifting opening title track — a 10-minute journey that boldly announced the album’s aberrant vibe – made use of the orchestra’s timbral dimensions, with twinkling harps and lush strings wrapping around the incantations of Dorsey and Poe. Dudley’s arrangement of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was driven by motorik rhythms from Lefebvre and Guiliana and wild solos from McCaslin, but felt restrained by Poe’s tentative energy and somewhat avoidant presence on stage. Here’s hoping he embraces a bit more of Bowie’s no-fudges-given swagger for the repeat.

McCaslin’s solos — equal parts mournful and fitful — earned their own applause after a stunning version of “Lazarus,” sung with stirring gravitas by Dorsey. Poe made a stronger showing in Schneider’s orchestration of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” his voice effectively threading the needle between Bowie’s yearning and cynicism: “In a season of crime, none need atone …”

Mitchell made his grand entrance for an orchestration of “Girl Loves Me” by Sharifi that swung between deadpan humor and sublime camp, his long vibrato soft but stern — innocence and experience. He brought the same affable glam to Visconti’s sparkling orchestration of “Dollar Days,” and gave the most vibrant verse out of the trio of singers for the thrilling “Blackstar” closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (another beautifully rich Sharifi production).

The album set was followed by an airy arrangement of “Life on Mars” by Tim Davies, gorgeously sung by Dorsey in a performance that could have sufficed as a finale. Instead, we heard Sharifi’s “Where Are We Now?” from the 2013 album “The Next Day,” and Buckley’s own orchestrations of 1969’s “Space Oddity” (for which Dorsey grabbed a guitar) and 1977’s “Heroes,” which ended with the quartet erupting like a volcano.

The NSO vamoosed before a pair of pared-down encores by McCaslin’s quartet: a “Let’s Dance” that still inspired enough dancing to test the upper tiers, and a delightfully sloppy “Rebel, Rebel” that found a flailing Mitchell descending into the aisles and through the front row, scandalizing a few folks right out of their seats.

One hazard of big tribute shows like these is the nature of the endeavor itself: honoring a dear and departed artist with an attempt to restore their presence. “Blackstar” admirably leaves room for us to feel Bowie’s absence and imagine how to fill the void. It felt a bit like gazing into the stars.

“Blackstar Symphony: The Music of David Bowie” repeats Saturday, June 29, at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, www.kennedy-center.org





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