Among the most passionate music lovers I’ve known have been mathematicians and scientists, so it should perhaps come as no surprise that the National Academy of Sciences hosts one of the most outstanding free concert series in Washington. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November several years ago, we decided to check it out.
I’d never been in the Academy of Sciences before, though I’d long admired the famous statue of Albert Einstein out front. Unlike other dreary government research labs and offices, however, the interior of the National Academy of Sciences is an elegant art deco "temple to science," especially the Great Hall, with dark green marble columns and a vaulted tiled ceiling. In the center of the hall, directly below the apex of the dome, a Foucault pendulum rests on an elaborate bronze medallion representing the solar system.
The auditorium is an interesting contrast to the opulence of the foyer and Great Hall. Here, the science of acoustics reigns supreme. The 670-seat auditorium is enclosed in a shell of diamond-shaped panels of different sizes, set with recessed lightings. The engineer responsible also designed the acoustics at the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall in New York. When the woman making the opening remarks first began speaking, I assumed she was wearing a concealed microphone, but when the president of the Academy, Bruce Alberts, rose from the audience to make a few remarks, I realized that any sound coming from the stage was easily and clearly carried to the back of the hall.
Yet another contrast was awaiting as the Grammy-winning Eroica Trio strode onstage, three gorgeous, willowy young women wearing stunning black and red evening gowns. Seating themselves quickly, they launched into the first piece, a fairly obscure Sonata by Loeillot. This was followed by Beethoven’s "Archduke" trio, and, after an intermission during which we viewed an intriguing photo exhibit on display in the Academy's exhibit space upstairs, Brahms’ trio in B major.
The ensemble played with an almost mesmeric intensity, their effortlessly fluid sound ranging from a whisper in the quiet passages to a full-blooded roar in the crescendos. Playing with an "all or nothing" spirit, they genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves, particularly during the final piece by Brahms, which was an unexpected program change. As cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio explained, the final piece originally planned, by a minor Russian composer, had suffered in contrast to the Beethoven, so they decided to conclude with the even more magisterial Brahms. The handling of the subtle syncopations of the Brahms piece seemed effortless. At the close of the concert, an enraptured audience thundered approval.
As the Eroica Trio maintains a grueling touring schedule, the exuberance and spontaneity of their performance was remarkable. Go see them, by all means, if they ever perform in your area.
Since attending this first concert, we’ve returned for at least one, and usually several, concerts each year. The most recent concert we attended was on November 9th, 2008, to hear pianist Diane Walsh perform a program of Schubert, Ravel, and Beethoven. We brought along a friend who has lived in Washington her entire life but had never heard of concerts at the National Academy of Sciences. Needless to say, she was delighted to find such an accessible and inexpensive way to enjoy the arts on a Sunday afternoon.
When someone mentions music in Washington, usually a venue such as the Kennedy Center or Constitution Hall springs to mind, but those who live in the area know that some of the best musical events fly under the radar, so to speak, at local churches, community centers, museums, and embassies. Tapping into these opportunities means that you needn’t spend a fortune or face large crowds to hear top-notch musical performances.
Insider Tip: Before a concert at the National Academy of Sciences, you might like to pay a visit to the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It's just across the street.