Hugh Wolff is in charge of the National Symphony this week at the Kennedy Center, offering a high-powered program played with some admirable results.
His program opened last night with the unjustly neglected "Benvenuto Cellini" overture of Berlioz, in which Wolff generated a proper excitement. Taking a vigorous approach at the right moments, Wolff also allowed the needed relaxation. Early in the slow section, there was an out-of-tune entrance on a high B from several of the top woodwinds, but on the whole, the Berlioz was a fine opening.
To the remarkable graciousness of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Wolff had the key. His rhythmic instincts were sound and his sense of the long melodic lines unfailing. There are, however, far greater dynamic effects in the music than he touched: sforzandos were underdone, and the frequent sudden contrasts between loud and soft were insufficiently marked, while the "perdendo" phrases lacked the proper effect. The orchestra's response to Wolff's explicit direction was excellent.
The Bartok Concerto, which had its 36th birthday two days ago, remains one of the principal challenges for today's orchestras and conductors. Closing the program with it, Wolff had all the major essentials well in hand. The wide dynamic range was handsomely observed, and tempos came very close to those Bartok specified. If the second movement felt fast, it may have been due to Wolff's refraining from anything that hinted of overdoing the ritards. He displayed exactly the kind of flexibility within phrases that is essential for the music to breathe. If some solo and concerted passages for bassoons and oboes were smeared, they were balanced by exquisite playing from the solo clarinet and flute. The mysterious quality in the virtuoso finale was handsomely projected. The program is being repeated through Friday evening.