For a few minutes, latecomers might have thought there was a jazz concert last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall -- although the National Symphony Orchestra was on the stage, Mstislav Rostropovich on the podium and principal bassoonist Kenneth Pasmanick in the soloist's chair. Most of the time Pasmanick sat at his music stand, as bassoonists usually do, but midway through the fourth movement of Gunther Schuller's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra he stood up like a jazzman and began to improvise hot licks on an instrument not associated with riffs and blue notes.
It was to be expected, no doubt. Schuller (the inventor of the "Third Stream" concept) is at home in jazz as well as classical music, and his fourth movement (titled "Blues") has a properly jazzy rhythm and sound. It is the most striking of the work's five movements. The others, titled "Ballade," "Berceuse," "Burlesca" and "Badinerie," testify eloquently to the versatility of an instrument too often dismissed as the "clown" of the symphony orchestra. The "Burlesca" and the pell-mell "Badinerie" cast it in a virtuoso role, while the first two movements establish, right from the beginning, that it can sing soulfully.
Last night's world premiere performance was warmly applauded, and not without reason. The world suffers an acute shortage of good bassoon concertos, the Schuller work is technically expert and the National Symphony gains in stature when one of its players takes the spotlight and performs as brilliantly as Pasmanick did.
But the real climax of the program came in another work, the Saint-Sae ns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. Lynn Harrell gave a solo performance that was beyond superlatives and Rostropovich inspired the orchestra to a near-perfect level of balance, style and ensemble sound. The Saint-Sae ns has a sense of form and direction somewhat lacking in the Schuller work, which relies on style and technique. Saint-Saens also writes more idiomatically for his solo instrument; the music plays to the cello's strengths, while the bassoon concerto puts the soloist too often in the relatively uncomfortable upper register.
The program opened with Schubert's Fifth Symphony in a performance that was stylistically on target and well played but not exciting. The slow movement could have been taken a bit faster without violating the "andante con moto" instruction.
The final number, Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," was beautifully interpreted and brought the concert to an exciting conclusion. On the evidence of the Saint-Sae ns and Ravel items, Rostropovich may have an affinity for French music comparable to his flair in Russian repertoire.