The late Arthur Sackler collected far more than jade and bronze sculptures, master drawings of the Italian Renaissance and pre-Columbian works of art. He collected friends with equal enthusiasm and a comparably discerning eye.
Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, as part of the celebrations for the dedication of the Smithsonian's new Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a few of those friends gathered to make music for about 2,000 other friends. The resulting concert was worthy of the occasion, since Sackler's musical friends included cellist Ja'nos Starker, pianist Byron Janis, baritone Sherrill Milnes, bass Paul Plishka and composer-conductor-pianist Lukas Foss.
As reflected in the selections on the program, Sackler's musical taste was solid if not particularly adventurous. Like the remarkable collection of Chinese art he has given to the Smithsonian, it was a taste that could be shared with large numbers of others. At its best -- as in Starker's performance of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G for unaccompanied cello or Plishka's singing of Gremin's aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" -- the concert reached the highest levels of performing art.
As usually happens on such occasions, a few words of appreciation were spoken. Fortunately, the remarks of Robert McC. Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian, were brief and those of actor Ron Silver (also a personal friend of Sackler) were eloquent and delivered with professional skill. Adams praised Sackler's "unrelenting efforts to create world understanding and to foster every manifestation of the creative process." Silver discussed both Sackler's work (for example, his pioneering research into the metabolic bases of schizophrenia) and his personality, which "even at 73 never lost that youthful intoxication with life's possibilities."
The Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, generally considered the best of six orchestras associated with that enormous music school, opened the program with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," dedicated to "Arthur M. Sackler, a decidedly uncommon man." That phrase, in association with occasional uses of that music, is trembling on the brink of cliche'. But, despite one or two slightly offkey notes, the performance directed by Foss was fresh, vital and rich in sonority. The orchestra also played a clean, precise performance of Mozart's overture to "The Magic Flute" and a colorful, high-energy reading of Ravel's second "Daphnis et Chloe'" Suite.
Janis was nearly flawless in two Chopin selections, and Milnes was correct if not very expressive or rich in tone in Tchaikovsky's "None but the Lonely Heart." He sounded considerably better collaborating with the superb Plishka in the duet "Il Rival Salvar" from Bellini's "I Puritani." But Plishka took the evening's vocal honors in the "Onegin" aria, which was sung with intense emotional involvement as well as exemplary technique.
Starker's Bach was flawless. Those who want their music performed with a personal touch must look to other performers, but seekers of perfection can find what they want with Starker. In his hands, this demanding music seemed easy, and its austere cadences seem to fare well with no sign of emotional involvement by the performer.