A surprisingly large number of persons managed to forgo the presidential debate last night for the first of the National Symphony's four concerts this week at the Kennedy Center. And the program wasn't of the sort that would necessarily outshine what you would get from Cleveland at the same time -- whatever you might think of the candidates.

The basic problem was that conductor Mstislav Rostropovich had put together a menu of three works that didn't mix well, regardless of how they were performed. On the billboards the program is advertised as "Mozart!" -- as if the centerpiece of the program, the 20th piano concerto in D minor, were to be enhanced by brass band and artillery.

The two Tchaikovsky works that surrounded it came distressingly close to just that.

The Mozart 20th is a masterpiece, probably his most openly rhetorical and dramatic concerto. Soloist Murray Perahia played the magnificent and stormy cadenza that Beethoven wrote for the work, and it seemed exactly right. Yet the style of both soloist and orchestra was not notably romantic, in the hallowed Serkin tradition. Instead, it was brisk, no-nonsense and properly classic, without being at all rigidly so. The balance between the orchestra and the soloist was splendid; Rostropovich had the orchestra properly scaled down, and Perahia projected with outstanding clarity along with it. The performance may have been a bit monochromatic for some, but on its own terms it was a real success.

So why all the griping? It's because Rostropovich chose to swamp this work on each side by some of the richest Tchaikovsky around. It's like killing the essence of Mozart with ladles of the heaviest sauce. At the first came the string serenade, a lovely piece, but too rich to precede the Mozart -- particularly in so heavy a performance. After intermission came that clattering old warhorse, "Francesca da Rimini." It's frequent wild moments are so noisy, and in last night's playing, so brash, that most memories of the refined passion of the Mozart were blasted from the ears at the end.