The National Symphony opened its subscription season a month late last night at the Kennedy Center, only a few days after returning from a grueling five-week tour of Europe. But there were no signs of jet lag or travel fatigue in its first program.
The opening "Star Spangled Banner," with a near-capacity audience singing along, made it clear that the orchestra is in fine condition, happy to be home again and ready to give its all. Two modern Russian selections were played at an energy level that was sometimes almost terrifying -- one of the trademarks with which Mstislav Rostropovich has long stamped his work as a conductor. But two 18th-century concertos showed a finesse of phrasing, a dynamic moderation, a meticulous attention to details of de'tache' bowing and graceful legato perfectly attuned to the music's substance. Rostropovich has been refining his approach to 18th-century music steadily for the last few years, and last night's concert showed him fully in command of the idiom.
The orchestra has never sounded better; it has seldom sounded as good.
A tour of Europe is a calculated risk for an American orchestra, at least for one that is not enshrined in the magic ranks of the "Big Five" (Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia), who have established unshakable reputations. For the NSO this year, the gamble seems to have paid off. It played like an orchestra with fresh memories of standing ovations in Greece and Yugoslavia, an orchestra proud that an Italian critic has praised its "giant steps" under Rostropovich's direction, an orchestra whose "musicianship and precision" were recognized in West Germany and whose "blazing execution" of French works was praised in Paris.
A London critic called it "the greatest Soviet orchestra in the world," and it justified that title last night in the "Colas Breugnon" Overture of Kabalevsky, which opened the program, and the First Symphony of Shostakovich, which closed it. The overture got the concert and the season off to a brilliant start, with bright sound in the winds and percussions riding atop a firm, mellow bass line. Tremendous dynamism did not interfere with the execution of details in this work.
The Shostakovich, composed when he was only 18 and still at the Leningrad Conservatory, is one of the most striking first symphonies in the repertoire. The composer's personality, fully matured and already marked with his distinctive style in melody, sonic flavor and rhythmic bite, can be heard right from the beginning. His wry wit is there, full-blown but covering a furtive sentimentality. So is the sense of a dramatic subtext in the music, and the uncanny skill with which solo instruments take the spotlight for climactic moments and key transitions. Seven or eight of the orchestra's principal players took well-earned bows during the thunderous final applause -- and this kind of attention may have something to do with the orchestra's evidently high morale.
As a whole, the music is perhaps more eloquent than logically coherent (and Rostropovich's natural inclination is to enhance the eloquence rather than impose coherence), but this was brilliant music brilliantly played, and it had a strong impact.
The contrast could hardly have been sharper with Haydn's gently lyric Trumpet Concerto -- surely the sweetest music ever composed for this assertive instrument. Guest soloist Maurice Andre' is, of course, a master of the work, which he has recorded a half-dozen times. On this program, Rostropovich proved an equal master of Haydn's orchestral style. The sound was perfectly balanced, the accents ideally placed, the phrasing a model of courtly grace and charm. In the final movement (as happy an outburst of pure song as any in classical music), one or two measures sounded slightly rushed and muddled, but this is not likely to happen in repeat performances. The only reason for playing Alessandro Marcello's repetitiously showy Trumpet Concerto in C is the presence of a soloist such as Andre'. The music was made interesting by his performance, and also by Lambert Orkis' demonstration that a harpsichord continuo can sometimes be made audible in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Three veteran players of the orchestra were honored during intermission ceremonies marking their retirement: William Arsers, who has been in the French horn section since 1962; Rafael Salazar, a violinist with the NSO since 1953; and Dorothy Stahl, a member of the orchestra for 32 years and its coprincipal cellist for 28.