"Could we ever learn to love such music?" a critic asked after the first performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto in 1875. His question received a resounding, affirmative answer Thursday night in the Kennedy Center, for perhaps the millionth time.
When the National Symphony Orchestra's audience stood up for a long standing ovation, part of its applause was for Cecile Licad, who played with power and poetry; part was for Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted brilliantly, and a lot was for the NSO, which was in top form.
But a substantial part of the enthusiasm was for Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, whose concerto may be the most beloved of all musical classics. It takes boldness to program this challenging concerto; it has been heard so often and in such impressive performances. Last night's performance ranked near the best.
From Marriner's first downbeat, it was clear that the evening would be full of satisfaction. Mozart's Symphony No. 35 ("Haffner") recalled the days when Marriner was known only as a specialist in 18th-century music. His performance was idiomatic but not finicky. He used a fairly large-sized orchestra and generated a robust sound with a lot of rhythmic vitality.
Between Mozart and Tchaikovsky, he conducted the standard suite from "Der Rosenkavalier," selected by Artur Rodzinski but approved by Richard Strauss and using his orchestration. The deep, rich, velvet sound of that orchestration was a pure joy, and Marriner controlled and balanced it with fine precision. He achieved an atmospherically Viennese flavor in his beat and caught the music's occasional wistfulness effectively.
In a "Prelude Concert," violinist Guido Mansuino and cellist Steven A. Honigberg of the NSO joined pianist Kathryn Brake in a glittering performance of Beethoven's Trio in D, Op. 70, No. 1 ("Ghost").