Gunther Herbig approaches the podium with an old-fashioned gravity as though conducting Beethoven were an ancient and solemn ritual -- as indeed it is when the music is the Ninth Symphony. His gestures are precise, graceful and usually some-what reserved in comparison to such conductors as Solti and Ozawa, but on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, when he made his first appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra, those gestures were translated into musical eloquence of a high order and enormous variety. His debut with the NSO could hardly have been more auspicious.
He opened the Ninth Symphony with as fine a pianissino as I have ever heard the orchestra produce -- mysterious, as the music demands, almost like a voice whispering a short, cryptic message. From there, he took the orchestra through a splendid crescendo into a movement that evokes colossal drama out of the implications of an utterly simple two-note motif.
The logic of his exposition was exemplary and stated with passionate, but not too passionate, intensity.
In fact, the whole orchestra was in top form throughout the evening. It was almost eclipsed, however, when the University of Maryland Chorus opened its collective mouth and began to sing the symphony's climactic section with magnificent tone, a dazzling dynamic range and a precision of diction that made every syllable of Schiller's great text maganificently clear. Paul Traver, director of the chorus, was brought out for a bow at the end of the concert, and the thunderous applauce was richly earned.
In such dynamic company, the four solo singers, bass Matti Salminen, tenor Dennis Bailey, soprano Ellen Shade and mezzo Fredda Rakusin, were somewhat overshadowed, though they sang their very demanding music commendably.
The program opened with Beethoven's crazy, mixed-up and fascinating Choral Fantasy, which is in many ways a preliminary sketch for the conclusion of the Ninth Symphony. The performance was excellent, with particularly good playing by pianist Lambert Orkis.