An enormous crowd showed up at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Farm Park Saturday night. It was no surprise. The attraction was the National Symphony Orchestra with Sarah Caldwell conducting with Van Cliburn as soloist, playing the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor piano concerto that won him the first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow 20 years ago. It also won him assured status as a folk hero.
The concerto went well enough Saturday night and promoted prolonged applause. I found it too muscular for my taste, with the tone forced beyong the capacity of the piano to sound beautiful, and with the lyrical and decorative passages that serve as relief between sessions of clangor played rather carelessly. But the crashing chords and the flurries of octaves sent shivers of ecstasy up and down a lot of spines.Caldwell, with her years of success in opera, was predictably an excellent accompanist.
Her best efforts of the evening came in the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, that showcase of youthful ardor and instrumental oddities. I have long ceased to be captivated by the work, but I must say that her handling of it was a masterpiece of craftsmanship and musicality. The piece is full of difficult entrances, changes of tempo, problems in balance, all of which she managed with her busy little beat and her unfailing eye on the ensuing musician about to make his contribution. She was even flawless in coping with the dialogue between the onstage horn and the offstage oboe. These instruments were very well played by Richard White and Vernon Kirkpatrick.
The opening overture, the familiar one to The Barber of Seville by Rossini, was more or less thrown away. I suspect it didn't get a complete reading in rehearsal and the result was almost monochromatic, with parts of the orchestra lagging behind the beat. For all the rest of the program, the orchestra was alert and magnificent in sound.