Whatever one may have to say about the president's campaign strategy, one can hardly fault his judgment in straying from the Rose Garden for a few hours yesterday afternoon to hear Robert Shaw conduct Berlioz's Requiem at the Kennedy Center.
Shaw brought his Atlanta Symphony here to play this mighty work for an overflowing house on Palm Sunday -- an appropriate choice for the occasion indeed. Shaw may not have had the 18 double basses, 10 tympanists and 10 pairs of cymbals called for by the composer. But the chorus of 200, the two extra brass groups playing from the top balcony and tenor Seth McCoy singing the blissful Sanctua from the box next to the president made quite a stir.
Asked at a party later in the center's atrium that was attended by numerous Georgians how he would review the concert, President Carter was quite spcific:
"Well, of course, it was a wonderful performance." Then Carter, who attended many Shaw concerts before coming to the White House, explained, "He is absolutely the best choral conductor there is, and just about the best of anything else in my opinion. And, of course, considering the orchestra is Atlanta's that's strictly unbiased and objective."
One hopes that, speaking also as an objective critic, it is not presumptuous to observe that except for the last sentence of his assessment the president is substantially correct.
There was not a single conspicuously weak link in the entire performance, a remarkable happenstance in this notoriously treacherous composition. This was the fifth group to do the Requiem here in recent years, and while individual parts of the others may have been better (Nicholai Gedda's solo with the Paris Opera, for instance) none has exceeded Shaw's overall level.
Any performance of the Berlioz Requiem is an event, even without the president, Mrs. Carter and Amy in attendance. Composed to be performed in the vast vaults of the Invalides in Paris, the Requiem cannot have its intended effect unless the listener has the sound coming at him from all directions. Futhermore, recording technology has yet to reach the point that one can reproduce the effect of multiple tympanists beating away full force. (Shaw used four and placed them on the floor of the Concert Hall in front of the first row).
As for yesterday's performance, the odds were against its spectacular success. Shaw used a local chorus with which he had only 12 hours of rehearsal; the orchestra is on a rigorous string of one-day stands that must be exhausting, and tenor McCoy has been having vocal problems lately.
Yet none of these was a problem, and the main reason was just what the president said, Robert Shaw's conducting. He is not the most famous of choral conductors for nothing. And Norman Scribner's Choral Arts Society (expanded yesterday to a little more than 200) has never sounded better. Shaw's precise dynamics were carefully followed, intonation and discipline were excellent, and the virtuosity of the fugue on the words "Hosanna in excelsis" was downright superb.
Particularly impressive was the steadiness of Shaw's rhythms, a suitable quality for a man whose mentors were conductors like Toscanini and Szell.
And, except for some slightly ragged phrase endings, McCoy's part was lovely indeed.
The orchestra's ensemble was a little ragged for the first few minutes, but then everything fell into place.
The party afterward was a particularly relaxed gathering by Washington standards. As far as Mrs. Carter could recall, it was the first time they had stayed for a social gathering after one of their fairly frequent visits to the center. This time it was because there were lots of Atlantans up for the concert. Mrs. Carter observed, "We just came up here to see home-folks."
President and Mrs. Carter are highly regarded in Atlanta arts circles. "You wouldn't believe it," said Shaw, "but when the president was governor, the Carters would actually stand in line at the box office for their own tickets."