Tonight at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony returns to its weekly subscription audiences for the first time since a two-week tour of the United States and Canada that drew substantial audiences and laudatory notices in the 10 cities visited.

The locales ranged from such relatively remote outposts of the symphony world as Peoria, Ill., and Tulsa, to two of its most prestigious enclaves -- the Chicago Symphony's Orchestra Hall and the Philadelphia Orchestra's Academy of Music.

Critics had quibbles here and there, but one constant reaction in each city was of the excellence of the playing, and in particular the timbre of the strings, which were frequently compared to the sound of music director Mstislav Rostropovich's cello.

The Chicago Tribune's John von Rhein wrote that Rostropovich's "influence can be noted chiefly in the dark cushion of string sound that is the orchestra's chief tonal distinction; by comparison, the brass seem unfocused. The National now can be considered one of the best of America's many fine orchestras, just below the level of the Big Five, and its artistic future looks exceedingly promising."

The Detroit News' Nancy Malitz carried this theme a bit further, observing that in the past the NSO's "reputation as a second-rung American orchestra -- the artistic peer of Cincinnati, Detroit, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and San Francisco -- was overrated. The orchestra's strings were too ragged and filled with dead wood, and the winds and brass lacked cohesive sound, decent intonation and discipline. All that improvement has now taken place . . . "

John Judson McGrody of the Columbus (Ohio) Journal wrote that "a few minutes of the Beethoven Fourth established that the National Symphony is not a great orchestra. But it's a pretty good orchestra. And I'd rather hear a good orchestra when it's really cranked up than a great orchestra playing in its sleep."

The country got a real dose of Shostakovich, because concerts in eight cities concluded with epic symphonies by Rostropovich's mentor. The Fifth, which is the orchestra's most frequent tour vehicle, was played at six stops on the tour. In this work, John Bridges of the Nashville Tennessean found an "overwhelming emotional wallop," and added that "Rostropovich touches the symphony's every moment with a naturalness, a freshness of delivery, that puts it back in touch with the mind from which it came."

In Chicago and Philadelphia, which get their shares of Shostakovich Fifths, the orchestra performed the less-often-heard Tenth, to raves in both cases. Daniel Webster wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that "the whole orchestra sound took on vitality; soloists became urgently expressive and the playing developed stature . . . "

This most recent tour, from March 18 to March 31, was one of a series to various regions of the country that will eventually take the NSO to every state.

The orchestra's executive director, Henry Fogel, said that one of the happy discoveries of the tour was the quality of concert halls in some of the less familiar cities. He mentioned in particular the converted movie theater that is the Columbus, Ohio, hall. "The acoustics are fabulous," he said. "And the acoustical shell is very fine. The players could really hear each other."

Fogel also took special note of the quality of audiences in some of the less-often-traveled cities, like Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Peoria. "It ridded me of the notion that I should expect less sophistication there. The audiences were attentive, did not applaud between movements and clearly knew what they liked and disliked."

The NSO's next tour will be a month in Europe, starting at the beginning of September.