Chet Atkins plays a mean Mozart. That is, he gives a virtuosic account of Fernando Sor's guitar variations on a theme by Mozart. It was just one of the treats last night of a program wedding the country music legend to the National Symphony Orchestra.
Switching back and forth from acoustic to electric guitar, and supported by his own band along with the orchestra, Atkins mixed intimate renditions of Beatles tunes and Spanish riffs with classical licks and go-for-broke breakdowns. He also showed a sure sense of the dry ad lib.
"I hope I don't embarrass you too much with my country pickin'," he told his orchestral accompanists in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. In the end, members of the string section were tapping their toes with as much gusto as the capacity crowd. It was hard to believe his announcement at the start that he was suffering from a chest infection. "I only mention that because I love sympathy," he said.
The first part of the program had the orchestra's Exxon/Arts Endowment conductor, 24-year-old Andrew Litton, leading his elders through Reznicek's Overture to "Donna Diana" and Gershwin's suite from "Porgy and Bess."
Litton, sometimes handling the baton as if shaking down a thermometer, conducted the Reznicek meticulously and briskly and had great fun with the Gershwin, whose scoring calls for, among other things, a wind machine. The program will be repeated tonight.