John Lanchbery has been familiar to Washington audiences as a figure in the pit of the Kennedy Center Opera House, where he has presided as chief conductor of American Ballet Theatre and, before that, principal conductor of the Royal Ballet.
The National Symphony had the splendid idea of bringing him out of the pit last night to launch the orchestra's summer season with a concert of music of the dance. The first half concluded with convulsive passion in the finale of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." And the concert ended with the shattering climax of Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe'" Suite No. 2. All that was needed to round out the evening's esthetic menu was a little taste of barbarism from Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du printemps."
For all the crashing sonorities of the affair, the finest moments were the quieter ones, especially in solo moments.
In any program that includes "Daphnis" and Debussy's "Pre'lude a l'apre s-midi d'un faune," the solo flute is going to be a star. Last night the National Symphony's first flute, Toshiko Kohno, was in formidable form. In the French impressionist repertory her tone is taking on more opulence than was once heard. Time and again there were touches of the rich vibrato that characterizes the sound of Kohno's eminent mentor and teacher, the Boston Symphony's Doriot Anthony Dwyer.
Likewise Loren Kitt's clarinet and acting concertmaster Andres Archila's violin were radiant.
As befits a highly experienced ballet conductor, Lanchbery seemed to be concentrating more on rhythmic precision and overall shape than on niceties of timbre, but in the Debussy the soloists more than compensated for this.
In the climactic moments of the Ravel and the Tchaikovsky the sound got a little hard, especially in the percussion and the brass.
The set of excerpts from Falla's "The Three-Cornered Hat" could have used more lilt and finesse, as could the stylistically inauthentic, yet bracingly wonderful set of Handel dances orchestrated and organized by Sir Thomas Beecham under the title "The Gods Go a-Begging." May we never get so carried away with the legitimate cause of Baroque stylistic purity that Beecham's refulgent Victorian versions of Handel get lost in the shuffle.
Malcolm Arnold's uncompromisingly conservative first set of English dances seemed an appropriate gesture on the day of the parliamentary election.