Antonio Vivaldi wrote violin concertos to be played by a concertmaster -- a member of the orchestra, slightly above the rank and file, but accustomed to collaborating harmoniously with his colleagues. This was the style of the 18th century, used by Bach, Mozart, Haydn and any number of Italian baroque composers.
But Brahms, like all the great masters of romanticism who used this form, wrote a violin concerto to be played by a virtuoso: a violinist of overwhelming technique and personality who could stand not in collaboration but in competition with the full orchestra -- dominate it, dazzle it and subdue it, like a lion tamer facing down a cage full of snarling, tawny beasts.
William Steck, the excellent concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, was the soloist this week in the Brahms Violin Concerto. He plays with excellent technique and beguiling lyricism. His cadenzas, with the orchestra silent, are graceful and beautifully formed, and they probe deeply into the inner workings of the music. But if he has the lion-tamer temperament of a Perlman or a Szeryng, he did not choose to demonstrate it Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. He played a warm, gentle concerto that fell somewhat short of the ultimate possible tension and excitement.
Mstislav Rostropovich, always the most considerate of conductors when he is balancing orchestra with soloist, made the NSO an ideal foil for Steck's jewel-like interpretation. Rostropovich is a lion tamer, but he let the orchestra roar mightily during the soloist's moments of rest. The orchestra obviously made an extra effort to enhance the impact of its colleague's performance, and the audience (appreciative of Steck's excellent work as concertmaster week after week) interrupted the music with applause after the first movement and gave him a standing ovation at the end.
For the other major work on the program, Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3, the whole orchestra (but particularly the brass and percussion) must play at a virtuoso level -- an assignment that the NSO took on with gusto Thursday night. The symphony is both pensive and optimistic -- most successful, perhaps, in its forward-looking, energetic sections, which often have the flavor of Copland's ballet music, if not quite as much rhythmic definition and vitality. The music sometimes shows an affinity for that of Shostakovich -- not a matter of imitation but of synchronicity and similar ideals and influences. Rostropovich clearly relished these echoes of his friend and mentor, and they were brought out a bit more clearly than another conductor might have done.
The most successful movements, the second and fourth, were the showcases of brilliant orchestration, flanking a slow third movement that stayed around longer than necessary. In the last movement, the theme of the "Fanfare for the Common Man," which has appeared in various disguises throughout the symphony, finally emerges in its own imposing identity, repeated with various modifications and interrupted by quieter, more lyrical interludes that make effective use of the woodwinds. It was performed with great impact (though the brass of the Chicago Symphony might have made even more of it), and it brought the evening to a blazing conclusion.
The concert opened with an under-rehearsed performance of a sinfonia by Johann Christian Bach, interesting primarily for the insights it gave into the influence exerted by Johann Sebastian's youngest son on the precocious talent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The performance was notable primarily for a superb oboe solo by Rudolph Vrbsky in the slow movement.