What we tend to remember in the Third (or "Organ") Symphony of Camille Saint-Sae'ns are the big moments near the end. There is an impressive glitter in the lightning-fast piano scales of the scherzo, an overwhelming power in the massive organ that vigorously brings the music to its final, explosive climax.
Around and under these two instruments, the orchestra breaks out in a riot of color, a carefully controlled pandemonium whose sheer energy takes an audience by storm. It is big music in the tradition of Berlioz, who launched French (and Russian) music on an exploration of sheer color that is still under way; it embodies the grandiose but technically adept spirit of Liszt, the musical showman and original thinker par excellence to whom the symphony is dedicated.
But the big moments and spectacular effects are only part of this music. Last night, under the baton of Romanian-Israeli conductor Yoel Levi, the National Symphony Orchestra did equal justice to the other side of Saint-Sae'ns' personality: the polished, graceful artist who speaks in hints and nuances and who can give his music the subtlest and most delicate textures.
The first and second sections of the symphony, music of restless agitation followed by mysterious brooding, were performed with a delicacy (quintessentially French) that matched the vigor of the later movements. Levi managed to coax from the NSO a specifically French sound that unfortunately included moments of nasal tone in the woodwinds and occasionally pinched sound and insecure intonation in the brass. But these were passing problems, and the strings played with a fine delicacy and an impressive range of dynamics and accents. Organist William Neil was equally exemplary in his supporting role early in the symphony and as the star of the finale.
The style was equally appropriate in Samuel Barber's pensive, boiserous overture to "The School for Scandal," a curious concoction of marshmallow flavored with vinegar but one that works well. Between Barber and Saint-Sae'ns, Scho'nberg's "Transfigured Night," well performed by the string section, provided a neat contrast, drenching the audience in turn-of-the-century Germanic angst and yearning. As always, this distillation of the spirit of dying romanticism seemed well-wrought but perhaps a shade longer than its material can justify.