There were times during Saturday night's concert of the French National Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein when it sounded as if the great American conductor and the French musicians were making magic in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
First Bernstein took a forgotten war horse, the overture to "Raymonde," and with the subtle, skilled cooperation of the orchestra, made it once more the brilliant showpiece Ambroise Thomas wrote. It is hard to think of another conductor today who could perform such wizardry. From that cheval de guerre Bernstein turned to another distinctive example of great French writing in a superb account of Saint-Saens' tone poem, "Le rouet d'Omphale."
Two noble symphonies, vastly different in concept and intent, added all the weight and grandeur the program needed. First came the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, music written a half-century ago for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Probably the finest of all Roussel's works, the Third Symphony is surely his most powerful, its complex textures bursting with brilliance.
Conceived along broad lines, the music moves in powerful counterpoint, illuminated by some of the most dazzling scoring of the great era between the world wars. It would be unfair to single out individual sections of the orchestra, since the entire ensemble is of matched strengths. But Roussel favored the brass and woodwind sections, and these responded to the challenge nobly, as did the concertmaster in his exquisite solos.
What Bernstein accomplished at the close of the program, with a transcendental reading of the Franck Symphony, was a triumph of revitalizing music that is too often played with the contempt bred by familiarity rather than the amazement that deep study can produce. It was a revelation not to be forgotten.