We have been underestimating the mandolin probably since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when the world decided that Big Is Beautiful, and certainly since it became part of a cliche': gondolas, moonlight, romantic melodies about unrequited passion, and a little instrument with a lot of strings that spend most of their time producing a cloud of tremolos to wrap around an Italian tenor voice.
Saturday night, in the hands of two expert players, the mandolin took a step back toward the respect it deserves. This happened, before a standing-room audience, in the Terrace Theater. Two concertos, by Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Nepomuk Hummell, were performed by the Handel Festival Orchestra, Stephen Simon conducting, and if they did not make the mandolin a rival to the violin or piano as a solo instrument, they certainly showed how well it can handle a delicate melodic line and how impressively it can ripple out elaborate cadenzas. The soloist in the Hummell was Stan Kurtis, who also played in the orchestra's first violin section when he was not otherwise busy; apparently there is not enough mandolin work around to keep a virtuoso eating regularly, even when he is featured in a best-selling album like "The Tango Project." In Vivaldi's Concerto in G for two violins, Kurtis was ably assisted by young Washington mandolinist Neil Gladd.
The mandolin highlight of the evening was probably the slow movement of the Vivaldi, a sort of serenade in which the two soloists are accompanied only by plucked violins and violas. The exquisite sound-texture (one of chamber rather than orchestral music) was perfectly served by the hall's sensitive acoustics, though somehow the sight of a conductor presiding over this intimate dialogue seemed out of place.
The program also included a concerto for three horns by Telemann, with members of the orchestra providing expert solo work, five movements of a nine-movement concerto for orchestra by Handel, and Haydn's 13th Symphony -- a well-balanced mixture of baroque and classical styles carefully chosen for the abilities of this exquisite little orchestra. Besides hornists Robert Sheldon, Jon Frederickson and Gregory Squires in the Telemann, concertmaster Jody Gatwood soloed impressively in the Telemann.
But the most memorable solo performance of the evening was undoubtedly that of principal cellist Evelyn Elsing in the slow movement of the Haydn, which is actually a cello concerto movement with very simple orchestral background. Her playing was rich in tone, precise in pitch and rhythm, deeply eloquent in overall impact.