The National Symphony's second evening of music for winds, Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, equaled and even surpassed the high standards that had been set the night before. Except for one moment of serious technical insecurity, the playing was as phenomenal as the repertoire--bright, colorful, bubbling with energy and glowing with charm. It was an evening of dazzling variety and virtuoso playing, and it whets the appetite for more of the special magic that happens when Frederick Fennell raises his baton before a first-class wind ensemble.
The problem came in the opening bars of the second movement of Mozart's Serenade in B-flat, K. 361--begun a little too briskly and with ragged ensemble sound after a long pause to seat a phenomenal number of late-comers. This was just enough imperfection to highlight the ease and polish of most of the evening's music-making. At the end of the Mozart--45 minutes of sheer musical delight--the applause had the special flavor not of feverish excitement, but of calm contentment, exactly what the music called for.
The hectic applause came after the final number on the program, the work of another composer who died untimely in his 35th year, the American Robert Kurka. His jazz-tinged "The Good Soldier Schweik" suite, based on themes used in the brilliant opera of the same name, is dramatically compelling music, touching and sardonic in its treatment of the absurdities and brutalities of war.
In this piece, a remarkable rapport was established between Fennell and NSO tympanist Fred Begun, making the suite sound sometimes like a concerto for timpani and winds--or timpani, winds and snare drum when Kenneth Harbison added a special piquancy to the sound.
But the performance was really a triumph for the whole ensemble. "The Good Soldier Schweik," one of the classics of the American musical stage, is reportedly on the agenda for the Washington Opera, but no firm date has yet been announced. The sooner it is produced, the better.
Also on the program were a charming little fanfare by Percy Grainger and two serenades written by composers in their teens. The Op. 7 of Richard Strauss is a tribute to Mozart and others, but also an assertion of the composer's own personality. The succinct, well-wrought Op. 1 of Vincent Persichetti, composed when he was 14, is surely one of the most brilliant pieces produced by an American composer at such a tender age and a fitting prelude to a distinguished career.