Zubin Mehta brought the equivalent of three orchestras to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, though all of them went under the name of that lean, mean music machine, the New York Philharmonic.
The orchestra kept growing through the evening, from the handful of players who opened the program gracefully with Telemann's Concerto in G for oboe d'amore, strings and continuo to the brawny giant (with 10 double basses and a pair of tubas) that brought down the house, almost literally, with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" as a grand finale.
Between these extremes of period and size, the New York Philharmonic was a medium-size classical orchestra for Schubert's briskly winsome Symphony No. 2 in B-flat. It was a curiously selected program, perhaps chosen to show that the New York Philharmonic is equally expert in a variety of styles. If so, the ploy worked.
In much of its repertoire, the orchestra tends to sound like the city of its origin -- noisy and impersonal, but also capable of achieving nearly anything with little apparent effort. These qualities emerged most fully in the Stravinsky, where they emphatically belonged, but they could also be heard in the Schubert, which was played almost as though the orchestra were rushing to catch a Metroliner home.
The phrasing and ensemble were immaculate in the Schubert, but the pace was (again, like New York) speeded up to the verge of dizziness. It is true that three of the symphony's four movements bear the marking "vivace," which means "lively." But the performance raised at least two questions: How lively is "vivace"? and could this symphony have been chosen because it has three lively movements? Whatever the answer, demonstrations of agility lose their impact after a while. The program might have profited from one of Schubert's more emotional works to balance and contrast the Stravinsky, which was played brilliantly, violently, with implacably precise rhythms and vivid color.
Contrast was heard, to some extent, in the Telemann concerto, a slender, graceful work that blends the solo instrument's smoky tone effectively with the strings. Thomas Stacy, a member of the orchestra, soloed proficiently and eloquently. The harpsichord was inaudible, as usual, in most of the Concert Hall.