Ezra Laderman's "Isaiah" Symphony (his Fifth) does not lose its impact with repetition. Given its world premiere by Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra in 1983, it was repeated for this week's concerts and it sounded more polished in performance and more powerful in its message than ever before.
Whether or not it was chosen with that in mind, this symphony about tensions and the hope for their resolution is an ideal piece for inauguration week in Washington. It was a bold decision to bring it back at all, and even more daring so soon after its last performance. Conductors like to give premieres; they are chips in the roulette game of history. But a second performance means a love of the music, a deep respect for it. Rostropovich's interpretation proclaimed these feelings and fully justified them.
It was not the only highlight of last night's concert. Guest artist Jean-Pierre Rampal performed with a brilliance, fluency and emotional depth rare even for him. He was on hand to celebrate not only the 300th anniversaries of Bach and Handel, but Rostropovich's coming of age as a conductor of Baroque music. Before he began his sabbatical year, there were small hints that he was beginning to come to terms with the Baroque -- a branch of music not deeply cultivated in the Soviet Union. What was hinted then has now reached fulfilment.
In Handel's Concerto Grosso in B-flat, Op. 3, No. 1, which opened the program, Rostropovich conducted with an acute awareness of the special structure and textures of the concerto grosso. It was not the kind of performance you hear from specialists in places like the Smithsonian, but it was as close to pure Baroque style as major symphony orchestras ever come. It included nice musicological touches, like the use of bassoon sound in the continuo to balance the oboes that gives this music its special tang. The orchestra was small and beautifully balanced. Everyone played well, with some specially fine solos by associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins, and Rostropovich directed it as though Handel were as close a friend as Shostakovich.
The least impressive work on the program was Bach's Concerto in C. It was "reconstructed" for Rampal by Bach scholar Milan Munclinger from a harpsichord concerto that had been transcribed (probably by Bach) from a concerto for oboe d'amore (possibly not by Bach). It sounded like it.
In Vivaldi's Concerto in D, Op. 10, No. 3 (not "The Bullfinch," as it is usually listed, but "The Goldfinch," as Richard Freed's program notes remind readers), Rampal was utterly amazing. His bird imitations glittered; there was a limpid, liquid beauty in every melodic curve. It was breathtaking -- more so for the audience than for Rampal, who had enough breath left to play Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" -- a cliche' of the flute repertoire. He made it haunting; it sounded as though it were being played for the first time.
Soprano Lucy Shelton repeated the impressive performance she gave at the premiere of the "Isaiah" Symphony, and once again she made the music completely her own. Her part comes in the simple, tranquil conclusion that resolves the symphony's massive tensions after a bombardment of passages marked "Furioso" and "Agitato." After the pure sounds have run riot, she enters with the healing words of Isaiah: "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war any more." She did it beautifully -- with the aid of Laderman, whose many skills include that of making a solo voice stand out against a large and often noisy orchestra.