Richard Bales (who will be 70 next Sunday) had an early birthday celebration yesterday. It was something like Macy throwing a party for Gimbel.
Bales, who has been the music director of the National Gallery of Art for more than 40 years, was honored with a concert mostly of his own music at the Phillips Collection. It was a week early because on his birthday Bales will be busy conducting at his own museum.
Both museums present broadcast concerts on Sundays, but the competition has always been friendly, perhaps because neither sells tickets. The Phillips Collection, where programs start at 5 p.m., tries to end them early enough to let music gluttons dash across town for the National Gallery's 7 p.m. concerts.
Bales first appeared at the Phillips Collection in 1948, giving a lecture titled "What Is Music?" His affection for his rival was most spectacularly expressed in 1972 when the late Elmira Bier retired as music director of the Phillips. For that occasion, Bales composed a piano piece (later orchestrated): "To Elmira With Love." It is a series of statements (agitated, romantic, enigmatic) based on the letters in her name, sounding sometimes atonal, sometimes like circus music.
"He has done more service to American music and American musicians . . . than any other musician now alive," Paul Hume told the capacity audience (made up largely of Washington musicians) in a brief introductory tribute to Bales. This was a simple statement of fact. As the music director of the National Gallery, Bales has supplied live and radio audiences for hundreds, perhaps thousands of American performers. As the originator of the Gallery's annual festivals of American music, he has performed a similar service for composers living and dead.
Yesterday's program sampled nearly 40 years of Bales' work as a composer. The earliest piece was a brief, playful Two-Part Invention for piano, dating from 1935, that may have had some affinities to "Turkey in the Straw." The most recent was "To Elmira With Love." Both were played with great brio and dazzling technique by pianist Alan Mandel. The 1964 song cycle "A Set of Jade," delicate miniatures with a Chinese flavor and impressionistic technique, received a heart-warming performance from soprano Katharine Hansel and pianist Edwin Ferguson. The splendidly lyrical Quartet in D (1944), which might almost be a modestly modernized work of Dvorak, was brilliantly played by the Manchester Quartet.
The final work on the program was not by Bales but was a tribute to him as a conductor. Six members of the National Gallery Orchestra, with pianist Evelyn Swarthout Hayes, played Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto without a conductor. It was a pleasant performance, but it would have been better with Bales wielding his baton for the musicians.