"Now I really feel like Oscar Peterson," Andrew Litton remarked, eyes a-twinkle, before launching into a swinging celebration of George Gershwin tunes in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night. The National Symphony Orchestra's pops concert had something for everyone, from old favorites to a sprinkling of delightfully inspired lunacy, all woven together by Litton's humorous banter. He's a natural-born ham, and his enjoyment is contagious. He also more than matched his talent as a comedian/musicologist by bringing forth a fine performance from the orchestra.
The most offbeat selections were from "The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower," a collaborative ballet involving the surrealist Jean Cocteau and six French composers with an ear for the absurd. For example: A general describes all life as a mirage, before being eaten by a lion (which he thought was a mirage). This leads into Honegger's "Funeral March," in which the gloomy mood is sabotaged by jesting trombones and snickering woodwinds, among others.
Elisabeth Adkins' violin solo in Meditation from Massenet's "Thais" left the audience in rapture -- quite an accomplishment after the Cocteau ballet. Adkins' performance was tender but powerful, her lyric violin soaring at times above a hushed accompaniment of strings and harp.
Selections from the "Nutcracker Suite" can start to sound somewhat wilted during the Christmas season, but Litton's "Waltz of the Flowers" was as fresh as ever. Tchaikovsky's score came alive through it all -- the shimmer of harp, lush strings, frolicking figures in the woodwinds and warmly balanced horns. (Noting that Christmas celebrations seem to start earlier every year, Litton offered last night's performance to open the 1986 Christmas season.) The same vibrancy was equally evident in Strauss' "Emperor Waltz."
The concert ended with Litton conducting the orchestra and playing the snappy piano part for "Who Cares?," a set of tunes showing Gershwin's skills as a popular composer. Harold Robinson's bass set down a firm groundwork for pieces that ranged from lush pop music to rollicking jazz. The last piece, "I Got Rhythm," included a crackling jazz trio. The program will be repeated this evening.