Eight members of the National Symphony Orchestra were featured as soloists in Thursday night's concert at the Kennedy Center -- nine if you count harpist Dotian Litton, who was not listed as a soloist on the program but was asked to take bows twice for her work in Franz Doppler's Concerto in D Minor for Two Flutes and Orchestra and in Jon Deak's "Jack and the Beanstalk" Concerto for Contrabass and Orchestra.
Both works had their first NSO performances, and the Deak had its world premiere -- to be followed, one suspects, by many repeat performances as word gets around about how much fun it is. Everything on the program, in fact, was being played by the NSO for the first time except for the opening number, Glinka's familiar, tuneful "Russlan and Ludmilla" Overture, which is something of a specialty for conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. It is the kind of work the orchestra can slip into a program where everything else is going to need a lot of rehearsal, confident that it will sound good with minimal preparation. And so it did, except for moments of hesitation in a couple of transitional passages that could have used a bit of coordination.
The most surprising NSO premiere on the program was Morton Gould's utterly irresistible Latin-American Symphonette, which will be 50 years old this year. How the orchestra could have ignored the vitality, color, rhythmic variety and popular flavor of this music for so long is a mystery. The performance did belated justice to the little symphony's sequence of rumba, tango, guaracha and conga.
The second world premiere on the program, and the first in the hearts of many orchestra members, was the Concertante for five instrumentalists and orchestra by Andreas Makris, a prolific composer who has also been an NSO violinist since 1961. Deak (who plays contrabass for the New York Philharmonic) and Makris are unusual among American composers in that they work in orchestras rather than on university faculties. The value of this orientation was quite clear in their music's freedom from academic stiffness or pretension.
The Makris work, in five brief, melodic, vividly flavored and nicely contrasted movements, tackles an unusual problem: to balance and spotlight five soloists from all sections of the orchestra -- strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion -- giving each of them material that is idiomatic to the instrument(s), allows displays of technical brilliance and works together to make a cohesive whole. He managed this expertly, with considerable help from Rostropovich, the orchestra and his five soloists: violinist Elisabeth Adkins, cellist James Lee, clarinetist Loren Kitt, hornist Edwin Thayer and percussionist Charles Wilkinson.
For maximum enjoyment of Deak's narrative concerto, it is a good idea to read the program notes before the performance. There is a lot going on in the music, and it would be easy to lose track of the narrative amid the dazzling array of barnyard noises, instrumental conversations without words, and special sound effects that include birds chirping, the wind blowing, the whole orchestra shouting "sell the cow!" and "magic beans!" -- even the sound of a beanstalk being chopped down and a giant snoring, shouting "fe, fi, fo, fum" and finally falling to earth from a great height.
The concerto was written for NSO principal contrabassist Harold Robinson and is well-tailored to his personality and skills, but should also appeal to many other players of that large, gently appealing instrument. Robinson showed considerable acting talents as well as musical skill and was often very funny.
In the Doppler concerto's finale, flutists Toshiko Kohno and Alice Kogan Weinreb played with dazzling skill, but their most memorable moment came in the slow second movement -- a dialogue with the harp that had the ethereal beauty of a duet from bel canto opera.