Between the lively and the lifeless lies the realm of routine. In what should have been a program of music great and popular, the National Symphony Orchestra was led by Guido Ajmone-Marsan through a less than memorable evening Saturday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
It was a special command performance of the works the public most wanted to hear, determined by 20,000 ballots turned in by NSO audiences. The public taste was not adventurous, but it was certainly solid. Its choices were Barber's Adagio for Strings, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8 and Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 and Symphony No. 5. There is a special challenge in playing very familiar works: To make them sound fresh each time. It can be done, and without looking too far the NSO under Hugh Wolff has done just that with Beethoven more than once. The young Ajmone-Marsan was not up to the challenge.
His style was fast, not always literal, and never poetic. His baton manner was precise and his presence glamorous, but he encouraged few virtues in his players beyond precision and good pitch. In some great music, playing the right notes is often enough, and there were many such notes. But there was a cloudy opacity where power should have been. There was none of Schubert's awesome uncertainty, little of Beethoven's greatness. It must be said, however, that the crowd seemed pleased, clapping heartily between movements.