Even while principal oboist with the National Symphony, Sara Watkins made no secret of her itch to be a conductor, and National Musical Arts, a chamber ensemble of fine musicians, seems to be just the sort of group she had in mind. On Saturday she led the ensemble in a neat, crisp performance of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" at the National Academy of Sciences Auditorium.
Her husband, singer John Shirley-Quirk, as narrator stole the show, however, reading the threefold role of soldier, devil and princess with uncanny agility and a marvelous feeling for the juxtaposition of text and music. The vividness of his reading, performed in English, almost made up for the absence of dancers. In this effort, he was well supported by incisive instrumental performances.
In the first half of the program, violinist Paul Kantor and pianist Patricia Gray collaborated on a reading of the Schubert B-Minor Rondo that sounded uncertain and, at times, sloppy. It is rumored that performers have a hard time hearing themselves on that stage and this may account for the problems. Certainly, the piano dominated the ensemble throughout.
When clarinetist Loren Kitt joined the two for a rollicking performance of Milhaud's joyful Suite, however, both balance and details seemed to settle into better adjustment.