There was a one-man show at the National Gallery last night. The artist was Richard Bales, and the occasion was his 65th birthday. What better way to celebrate than for him to do what he has done so well for 37 years, conduct the National Gallery Orchestra? The audience was packed with friends and well-wishers, and the program was -- what else? -- the four National Gallery suites Bales has composed over the past four decades.
They take their cues from paintings in the Gallery collection, Nos. 1 and 2 from European masters, Nos. 3 and 4 from American artifacts.
Bales has a wonderful way of capturing in sound the essence of a work of art, but the American idiom is his forte. He has it down cold; the sad, open harmonies of the Appalachian song, the sprightly horn-pipe, the parlor ballad of the gay '90s, they are all there, evoking a whole parade of the good old days.
As conductor, Bales had a field day. With aplomb and great clarity he drew his tonal pictures. Wittily he ended the concert with a home run: "The Baseball Player," the last movement of the Third Suite. The pitcher winds up, pitches, crack! and then the long slow arc of the ball. It was gone, and the audience howled.
Happy birthday, Richard Bales, and what will you do for an encore?