The thunder began tuning up with the rest of the National Symphony Orchestra quite a while before Keith Brion gave the first downbeat of his John Philip Sousa program last night at Wolf Trap. By the time the program opened with the "Light Calvary" overture, the thunder was up to concert pitch and provided a notable supplement to the orchestra's five-man percussion section. But it missed its cues frequently, proving once again that nature isn't always right -- a point that is demonstrated several times each year at Wolf Trap. Sousa's march, "The Thunderer" was not played until the second encore, by which time the weather already had used up most of its ammunition.

From the concert's beginning, the lawn patrons were driven to shelter under the roof, where they were still pelted by wind-driven rain; and during the first encore, "El Capitan," all the electricity in the park went out for a minute or two. The orchestra played on valiantly, without missing a beat in conditions that would have silenced any rock group -- proving once again the natural superiority of classical music. All this happened in the opening two numbers, so by the time "The Thunderer" came on -- including an impressive if poorly timed thunder cadenza -- the effect was anticlimactic. The audience laughed when two attendants in straw hats, red suspenders and sleeve garters came out with placards carrying the name of the march. But when it ended the applause was, naturally, thunderous.

Against such competition, the pistol fired with fine rhythmic precision by Charles Wilkinson during the "Field Artillery" march was only the second most spectacular percussion instrument of the evening. Also impressive, in a more lyric sort of way, were the trumpet of Adel Sanchez in a charming little concert piece called "The Bride of the Waves" and the trombone of Milton Stevens in a set of variations on "Blues Bells of Scotland." Vocal selections were performed by soprano Charleen Ayers, singing two arias from "La Traviata" and by the orchestra singing "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."

Sousa marches dominated the evening -- notably in the dozen encores scattered through the program -- but not all of the marches were by Sousa (Verdi and Wagner contributed) and not all the Sousa music was marches. There was a fine suite of selections from his operetta "The Freelance," and a ragtime and waltz which did not compare unfavorably to the Johann Strauss polka "Perpetual Motion" with which they were teamed on the program. s

Brion, making his debut at the NSO though he has been doing Sousa programs for several years, had the orchestra (except its thunder section) under fine control. The audience, too. "Stars and Stripes Forever" was the final encore. The reaction became tumultuous when an enormous American flag was lowered behind the orchestra. Nothing could possibly top this so when the audience loudly demanded another encore all that Brion could do was play it again. From the reaction, it seemed that the audience would have been happy if the orchestra had gone on playing "Stars and Stripes" forever.