Catherine Comet guest-conducted the National Symphony in 1984, when she was associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, but last night marked her long-overdue debut in the NSO's subscription series. She should be brought back soon and frequently.
Last night, she made a strong impression in spite of two handicaps. First, the program opened with Leonard Bernstein's "Slava!" Overture -- an energetic, colorful, superficial and disjointed piece that does not need to be heard again in Washington at least until the 1990s. She did with it what had to be done.
In Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, pianist Alexis Weissenberg played fluently across the glittering surface of the music, taking no chances and achieving polish rather than communication. Still, Comet managed to engage in a kind of dialogue during the slow movement, and the transition from there to the brilliant finale was beautifully handled. There was grandeur in the first movement, but it was more orchestral than pianistic.
Between these extremes, she gave a thoughtful, balanced interpretation of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, controlling the orchestra with clear, firm gestures and probing the individual character of each variation. This is a conductor who knows exactly what she wants in every measure and how to get it. The orchestra responded well to her firm, expert guidance.