Good things seem to happen whenever conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos and the National Symphony get together. Last night under his knowledgeable hand the orchestra produced some of its warmest, most expansive playing in an evening of genial music-making.
In the opening "Unfinished" Symphony of Schubert, Fruhbeck de Burgos demonstrated his capacity to elicit a smooth, unforced sound and fine dynamic gradations from the orchestra. There simply were no rough edges as instruments eased in and out of the familiar passages, shaping their lines with great sensitivity. The pianissimo opening of the allegro was magic, with the lower strings barely breathing their ominous theme followed by the upper strings whispering their accompaniment to the sighing woodwind melody.
A particular pleasure for all involved was the appearance of the symphony's principal oboist, Sara Watkins, as the soloist in Strauss' Oboe Concerto. Though written after the Second World War, the concerto is a glorious evocation of the past. Its initial solo passage is also probably the most taxing ever invented -- 56 measures of non-stop playing. Watkins handled that and other challenges of the work well, generally displaying an even tone and a lively musical sense. She produced some radiant phrases, particularly in exchanges with the strings, and one could wish that she had projected even more, both in sound quality and expressiveness.
Fruhbeck de Burgos and the orchestra finished the program by thoroughly enjoying themselves in a splendid performance of "Gotterdammerung" excerpts.