Hovering over his players in a Swengali-like fashion, conductor Karl Muenchinger drew a polished performance from the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last night. With his mane of white hair flying, Muenchinger moved about from section to section, visibly shaping the sound of the 18 strings into a precise and elegant whole.

Though the overattention proved a frequent distraction for the audience, the musicians -- seemingly either oblivious or mesmerized -- responded with expert musicianship and exceptional control. Muenchinger demanded and received entries of silken smoothness in the "Ricercare" from Bach's "The Musical Offering." With each quiet sounding of the familiar theme the level of intensity gently rose, as Muenchinger moved surely and steadily toward the complexity and fullness of the climax.

Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto, written for three string choirs -- three violins, three violas and three cellos -- offered a more intimate hearing of the orchestra's finely molded style. Concertmaster Hector Laverny had the opportunity to display his brillance and associate concertmaster Wolfgang Kussmaul his warmth in Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, despite interference from Muenchinger, who insisted on conducting the two soloists. The final half of the program was devoted to Dvorak's E-Major String Serenade, a delightful work handled with surprising lightness and grace.