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NSO’s “Blackstar Symphony” is a worthy tribute to David Bowie

When I walked into the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday, it was clear that the place had undergone a few minor changes. (Sorry.)

The air was filled with artificial fog. The walls behind the stands were subtly striped with long gray curtains. The stage was bathed in shades of pink, purple, and blue (what the kids call bisexual lighting). And the audience was very heterogeneous, a mix of generations that defied easy categorization – namely Bowie fans.

The occasion was the “Blackstar Symphony,” an orchestral arrangement 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 gave the album “Blackstar” its surreal, noir core – and conductor/composer Jules Buckley, who led the National Symphony Orchestra through a complete interpretation of Bowie’s 26th and final album, plus a handful of his most beloved hits.

Orchestral tributes to pop stars aren’t usually my thing. Often, the orchestra becomes a thickening agent in these pop enhancement scenarios. And Friday’s production – with the orchestra dressed in black, shrouded in darkness and cordoned off by plexiglass panels – frankly worried me.

But for one thing, my resistance to honors will never surpass my fascination with all things Bowie. The NSO could have announced that we were all going to hang out and watch Labyrinth, and I would have shown up with extra eyeliner and popcorn.

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

Buckley, Sharifi and Tim Davies’ refreshing recasting of several old favourites expertly captured Bowie’s eerie alchemy of grief and hope. Unexpectedly, this seemingly simple tribute show delivered an unexpected emotional punch. It turns out that revisiting Bowie’s legacy – and by extension, his death – in 2024 is not for the faint of heart.

Most of the quartet Bowie assembled to record Blackstar was reunited on stage: McCaslin on saxophone, along with keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre. (Drummer Mark Guiliana was a good replacement for Blackstar drummer Nate Wood.)

Vocal duties (no pressure!) were shared by the trio of Bowie’s longtime bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey (relentlessly gorgeous), singer David Poe (whose imitations of Bowie were more formal than functional), and actor, director, and lifelong Bowie fan John Cameron Mitchell (whose take on Bowie’s meticulously unbuttoned charm was as flawless as the folds in his Thom Browne skirt).

Mendoza’s arrangement of the ever-changing title track – a 10-minute journey that boldly announced the album’s deviant mood – took advantage of the orchestra’s timbre dimensions, with sparkling harps and lush strings enveloping Dorsey and Poe’s incantations. Dudley’s arrangement of “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was propelled by motorik rhythms from Lefebvre and Guiliana and wild solos from McCaslin, but felt held back by Poe’s tentative energy and somewhat avoidant stage presence. Let’s hope he embraces a little more of Bowie’s uncompromising swagger for the repeat.

McCaslin’s solos – equal parts sad and anxious – earned their own applause after a stunning version of “Lazarus,” which Dorsey sang with stirring dignity. Poe was more prominent in Schneider’s orchestration of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” his voice effectively walking the fine line between Bowie’s yearning and cynicism: “In a season of crime, nobody need atone …”

Mitchell made his grand entrance with an orchestration of Sharifi’s “Girl Loves Me” that veered between dry humor and sublime camp, his long vibrato gentle but stern – innocence and experience. He brought the same affable glamour to Visconti’s sparkling orchestration of “Dollar Days” and delivered the liveliest verse of the trio of singers on the thrilling “Blackstar” closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” (another beautifully rich Sharifi production).

The album set was followed by a breezy arrangement of Tim Davies’ “Life on Mars,” which Dorsey sang beautifully in a performance that could have been enough of a finale. Instead, we heard Sharifi’s “Where Are We Now?” from 2013’s 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 into a volcano.

The NSO disappeared before two stripped-down encores from McCaslin’s quartet: a “Let’s Dance” that still inspired enough dancing to test the upper ranks, and a delightfully sloppy “Rebel, Rebel” that saw a flailing Mitchell run into the aisles and through the front row, shocking some people into practically jumping out of their seats.

One danger with big tribute shows like these is the nature of the undertaking itself: honoring a beloved and departed artist and trying to recreate their presence. Blackstar admirably leaves space for us to feel Bowie’s absence and imagine how to fill the void. It felt a bit like looking at the stars.

Blackstar Symphony: The music of David Bowie Repeat Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, kennedy-center.org

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