Music of three distinctive ethnic flavors was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Zdenek Macal and guitarist Christopher Parkening last night at Wolf Trap. All of it was good, but the Czechoslovakian and Hungarian idioms made a stronger impact, in this performance, than the Spanish item.
Macal is a conductor solidly rooted in the great Central European musical tradition but at ease in many other idioms, as he demonstrated last year at the Kennedy Center, conducting the Milwaukee Symphony in an exceptionally good performance of the Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique." As a native of Czechoslovakia, however, he has a special affinity for the music of Antonin Dvorak, which is being displayed in a series of recordings -- again with the Milwaukee orchestra, of which he is the musical director.
Last night's concert was climaxed with a performance of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88, magnificent in its attention to fine details, in the balancing and articulation of the orchestra's many voices, in the energy, subtlety and precision of its rhythms, which often drew their vitality from the spirit of Slavonic dances.
In a very real sense, the National Symphony Orchestra works harder in the summer than the winter: This week, the orchestra had to prepare and perform four different programs. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the ensemble sound was not always equal to the orchestra's winter standards or that there was problematic intonation on a few notes (particularly in the fanfare that opens Dvorak's fourth movement). The remarkable thing was that the orchestra managed to sound so fresh and well prepared in such a hectic week. This is partly a reflection of the NSO's professionalism, but it also reflects credit on Macal, who clearly knows what he wants and how to get it in limited rehearsal time.
This was also shown in his interpretation of Zoltan Kodaly's popular, rhythmically compelling and brightly orchestrated "Dances From Galanta." Like Liszt, Kodaly based his work on the songs, dances, melodic styles and violin techniques of Hungarian Gypsies, but he worked with a much broader and deeper knowledge of Hungarian music. This knowledge, as well as a mastery of folk dance rhythms and orchestral sound balances, was reflected in a performance that did not try to inflate the music's importance but did full justice to its freshness and high energy.
Christopher Parkening is one of the most respected guitarists alive, and he was given warm applause before and after his solo stint in Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez." This was earned with a fluent performance in which he did nothing wrong and showed impressive technique. But there is more in the music than he showed. Other guitarists -- Pepe Romero, for example -- find a depth and intensity in its slow movement that raise it above the level of a virtuoso showpiece or an exploration of exotica. That dimension was not fully represented last night.