The shouts of "Bravo!" and the deafening applause and cheering were foreordained. Indeed, the tumultuous ovation for the National Symphony Orchestra's concert Saturday night at the Kennedy Center was the only appropriate response to conductor Andrew Litton's interpretation of Saint-Sae ns' Symphony No. 3 in C Minor.
Often referred to as the "Organ Symphony," this grandiose work is among the greatest of crowd-pleasers, and the NSO did nothing to tarnish its sparkling reputation. Despite its name, the organ is mostly employed for majestic dynamics and for the sheer grandeur of its sound.
Organist William Neil's muscular yet controlled virtuosity, combined with Litton's vigorous conducting style, displayed in the most exemplary fashion music's power over human emotions. The audience's post-finale enthusiasm was contagious.
Donald S. Sutherland sat at the console for the performance of Poulenc's masterfully written Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani. The organist began promisingly with the opening recitative, supported by the kettledrums and basses, but the balance quickly went askew between the massive power of the solo instrument and the strings.
The program opened with Elgar's Overture "In the South (Alassio)," a puzzling, contradictory composition, with visions of bulldogs triumphant after a fight, marching Roman legions and quiet poetic reflection. It is a work both achingly melodic and exceedingly noisy and ugly. It conjures aural images of Richard Strauss' tone poems, just as Franz Liszt's spirit hovers over Saint-Sae ns' symphony and J.S. Bach reverberates in Poulenc's concerto. Saturday's NSO program could truthfully be characterized as the music of one Englishman, two Frenchmen, two Germans and a Hungarian.