Film, flash and finery -- the unofficial "three F's" of music -- were the centerpiece of the National Symphony Orchestra's performance last evening at the Kennedy Center. Guest conductor Christopher Keene presided with a tight rein, attentive to the subtlest nuances, while overlooking somewhat the more majestic poetic gestures at the core of this program that had a little something for all musical tastes.
Opening with the Washington premiere of John Corigliano's "Three Hallucinations for Orchestra," Keene mustered the full power and range of timbres from the players to give this highly evocative music a life of its own, apart from its appearance in the film score to Ken Russell's mind-bending "Altered States." Bleating oboes conjured the sacrificial slaying of a seven-eyed goat, while skittering phrases and slow glissandos in the strings reinforced the exotic setting. An out-of-tune piano offstage interjected strains from "Rock of Ages," a cagey touch on the composer's part, for the orchestra developed the fragments, building the intensity to the final catharsis.
Pianist Raymond Lewenthal, a specialist in the Romantic repertoire, provided a thoughtful, if not particularly inspired, reading of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 in C minor. Overwhelmed at many points by the orchestra in the outer movements, Lewenthal exhibited little of the powerful bravura for which he has been renowned. This seemed odd, insofar as he has Lisztian ties -- and a neo-Lisztian frock coat that he sported for this concert -- and an empyreal bearing. His most convincing romantic outpouring occurred during the introspective middle adagio, where soloist and orchestra complemented each other beautifully.
Keene captured the Edwardian splendor of Elgar's Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, lucidly drawing out the expansive themes with an attentive eye to the lighthearted sections, though undercutting the grandeur of the composer's more provocative allusions to the recurring motto theme.