Last night's National Symphony concert in the Kennedy Center began with a memorial tribute to the late Carl King who was, for more than 20 years, the orchestra's valued, helpful and friendly stage manager. Antal Dorati at the harpsichord led the string orchestra in the Air from the third suite by Bach.
This was followed by Yehudi Menuhin as soloist in the A Minor Violin Concerto of Bach, in which, as proved later in the program, he was in the finest form he has been in some seasons. His tone was beautifully shaped, his style notable.
Menuhin and Dorati then introduced a noble work to Washington, Frank Martin's Polyptyque, a set of "Six Images of the Life of the Lord."
Commissioned by Menuhin in 1973, it is the last work completed by the distinguished Swiss composer before his death in 1974, at the age of 84. Scored for solo violin, divided string orchestras and a set of four bells, the music is as lofty in mood as its depiction of the Passion of Jesus Christ would suggest. Its six images recall Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Judas, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Judgment and final Glorification.
The strings in Martin's familiar harmonic style cannot help recalling his moving opera, "Le vin herbe," on the Tristan legend. The solo violin represents both the Evangelist and the voice of Christ, speaking in anguish and in deeply moving, radiant serenity.
A striking use of the mute on the solo instrument in the "Judas" passage vividly suggests the furtive secrecy of the man who betrayed his friend and master. Menuhin's tone took on a dark beauty in the music, which he played with open admiration and love. Dorati and the full strings of the orchestra were expert in the work, which joins similar instrumental scores by Haydn, Dupre and Messiaen, matching them in an aching loveliness.
Dorati closed the program with the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, to which he brought lively vitality, alert to the subtlest touches of mood and scoring. His first movement was superbly held to the initial tempo, yet always sounded flexible. Such solo moments as those for clarinet and bassoon toward the close were outstanding, as was the articulation of the violins. It was a lofty account.