Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" demands a virtuoso orchestra for its treacherous solos and its lush sonorities -- plus a conductor who is genuinely sensitive to its undulating moods and its lustrous blends of sound.
You don't hear a performance like that very often, but that was exactly what the National Symphony produced last night in the Kennedy Center under principal guest conductor Rafael Fru hbeck de Burgos. He is always an able conductor, but one has seldom heard him conduct with such imagination and finesse.
The National Symphony was once again playing like the major ensemble that it has come to sound like under Rostropovich, Bernstein and Tennstedt. Fru hbeck took very broad tempos. That is a wonderful idea when the opportunity is seized, in the process, to greatly refine the sonority and the phrasing. Otherwise, "Scheherazade" can really drag at that pace.
Perhaps the performance was all the more exciting because the idea of starting the 52nd season with "Scheherazade" seemed such a singularly dreary prospect when it was first announced. The glories of this work are faded in most performances these days. Its lovely melodies are stretched rather thin. And in this era of petrodollars and war, somehow a work based on "Arabian Nights" doesn't seem as romantic as before.
Fru hbeck went after beauty of sound rather than force. Fortissimo attacks were soft, and not once did the orchestra seem to be blasting away, as so often happens in this work. Ensemble was precise.
The work also provided a Kennedy Center debut for the orchestra's new concertmaster, William Steck. This is probably the most taxing solo violin part in the standard repertory, except for concertos. Steck's style was direct and unostentatious. The tone was pure, but neither large nor lush. Articulation and pitch were impeccable.
Steck seems shy and businesslike and does not play to the audience as much as his predecessor, Miran Kojian. If there was any applause for him when he first came on, I missed it. Why not just do away with that separate concertmaster's entrance, with its polite applause and his little bow? It has always seemed a gratuitous and awkward moment.
Other really splendid soloists in the Rimsky-Korsakov included clarinetist Loren Kitt, bassoonist Kenneth Pasmanick and harpist Dotian Carter.
The Brahms, which opened the program, was less authoritative. In the first two movements, Fru hbeck and the orchestra were doing all the right things, but the result did not add up to more than the sum of its parts; that cumulative power that is the essence of Brahms as he intensifies his material by tightening the tonal and contrapuntal complexities was slighted. It may just have been a matter of tempos.
But in the wistful lyricism of the gentle third movement, the performance came alive, with the same cleanness of line and delicacy of texture that would return on a grand scale in "Scheherazade." The finale, with its powerful material and its elegiac ending, went quite well.
Despite the beauties of last night's opening concert, one element was missing: Mstislav Rostropovich. A precedent should not get started for the principal guest conductor, rather than the music director, to launch the season. It is the music director who sets the tone of the season. Rostropovich is conducting Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" at the Paris Opera and will not arrive here for almost two months. This is not to suggest that he is cheating on the NSO; he is not. But the whole season should be shaped around his programs, and it would be best for him to begin and end the season. Conducting is not a profession in which it is wise to delegate too much.