Ce'sar Franck's Symphony in D minor is as exacting a test of an orchestra's technique, polish and stylistic flexibility as the standard repertoire offers -- grandiose and intimate, impassioned and serene, it thunders and whispers, it sings and shouts, it storms and it soothes. It is even more of a challenge for orchestras that do not specialize in French music, but last night at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony gave an impressive account of this music in all its dimensions.
The concert was the debut of guest conductor Serge Baudo with this orchestra, and the results make one eager for his next visit to Washington. Leading the orchestra with gestures that were often theatrical but still musically precise, he controlled masterfully a wide range of dynamics, abrupt shifts of tempo and some tricky problems of balance between massed strings and solo wind instruments. Above all, even when the ensemble sound slipped a notch or two away from absolute standards of perfection, the performance generated excitement.
Georges Bizet's playful, energetic Symphony in C -- a fine work for any composer and an amazing one for a 17-year-old -- opened the program in a bright, brisk, no-nonsense interpretation, and it was followed by Ravel's exotic, evocative song cycle "She'he'razade," with Phyllis Bryn-Julson in fine voice and (as always) stylistically right on the mark.
In its own way, the Ravel work is as severe a test of orchestra and conductor as the Franck; it functions within a much smaller range of expressions, but it requires a subtlety of nuance, a sense of pastel coloration (rather than Franck's bold, primary colors) and above all a carefully calibrated relation of orchestral to vocal sounds for its full impact.
No singer is better at cutting through an orchestra's sound or making her voice float on the instrumental texture than Bryn-Julson, but last night she was aided by an expert technician in this field; Baudo's extensive operatic experience was clearly evident.
The orchestra supported the voice, formed a halo around it, and blocked its place in the spotlight for no more than a measure or two throughout the work. It was an exemplary collaboration between two artists of the highest caliber, and one might have wondered why "She'he'razade" is not performed more often if one didn't know what a difficult feat was being made to appear easy.