NSO's Children's Concert

This week, while half of the National Symphony has been playing Handel's "Messiah" at night, the other half (the instruments Handel didn't know about or didn't find cost-effective) has been giving children's concerts in the daytime.

The program is probably educational but unquestionably fun, for adults as well as children. With the aid of Douglas MacIntyre and Maggie Petersen of the Magic Circle Mime Company, Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," Shostakovich's "Golden Age" Polka and Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Little Swans" have never been so hilarious.

The program begins with MacIntyre wandering on the stage, discovering to his surprise that there is an orchestra warming up, and -- more or less by accident -- conducting part of the Britten until Fabio Mechetti, the real conductor, chases him from the stage. He sneaks back on with a trumpet for the Shostakovich, starts and loses a fight with the orchestra's trumpet section, and brings Petersen out for a gawky but resolute pas de deux in the Tchaikovsky that evolves somehow into a tap dance.

He also tries to audition as a singer, miming Mozart's "Non piu andrai" with Petersen at the piano, and the pair of them bootleg a pair of cymbals (not in Mozart's orchestration) with which they hope to pep up the finale of Mozart's 39th Symphony.

After playing to capacity audiences from the schools all week, the concert (lasting about an hour) will be given for general audiences today at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. -- Joseph McLellan

Meliora String Quartet

The Meliora String Quartet -- an extraordinary young group that has continued to improve since its first performance here three years ago -- brought an evening of refined, intricately calibrated and imaginative music making to the Corcoran last night.

Opening with a finely tuned reading of Haydn's Op. 74, No. 1, full of the elegant fire that marks all the late Haydn quartets, the Meliora turned in some of the most detailed and polished ensemble playing heard from any quartet this year. The players' obvious sheer pleasure in the music, moreover, was irresistible.

The really impressive playing, though, came in the Meliora's probing and powerful account of Barto'k's Quartet No. 6, certainly among this century's most anguished and difficult chamber works. It was altogether a first-rate performance that never let up its concentration for a moment.

Following a brief intermission, the Meliora closed with a warm, engaging reading of the Schumann A Minor Quartet, Op. 41, No. 1, a light but pleasant enough work. -- Stephen Brooks

'Messiah' at the Kennedy Center

With "The Nutcracker" being performed in the Opera House and Handel's "Messiah" being sung in the Concert Hall, there was no doubt Christmas had arrived at the Kennedy Center Thursday night. Led by Robert Shafer, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Oratorio Society of Washington offered a solid reading of this season's favorite choral work.

The chorus sounded particularly strong, emphasizing clear diction and excellent projection. If tempos sometimes seemed a little slow (in "For unto us a Child is born") and interpretation a bit square (in "Lift up your heads"), the group compensated with secure intonation and sharp focus. There was never a shortage of vigor and energy.

The soloists delivered their parts with competence. Soprano Young Mi Kim held perhaps the greatest dramatic interest. Contralto Gretchen Greenfield sang with a warm tone, as did tenor Glenn Siebert. Baritone Julian Patrick used his rich and distinctive instrument to advantage. The chorus and soloists achieved an attractive balance with the orchestra, which supplied a fine degree of color throughout.

"Messiah" will be repeated tonight and tomorrow afternoon. -- Kate Rivers