To some conductors, a baton is nothing more than a stick, a traditional prop. To others such as Zdenek Macal, who guest-conducted the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap Saturday night, the baton is a wand, an instrument designed to weave magical textures.
In a program that featured the music of Beethoven, Strauss and Sierra, Macal used his whole body as a baton. His free left hand squeezed the air with urgency, as if coaxing eloquence out of it; at times he thrust his arms downward as if jolted by 1,000 volts to emphasize dramatic fortissimos.
The NSO was utterly responsive in everything it played. While pacing in the Presto of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 appeared pressed and the opening statement of the Allegretto a little clipped, this was a fine performance. Richard Strauss's Horn Concerto No. 1 and Roberto Sierra's "Sasima" were equally well rendered -- though the orchestral material in each was far less exacting than the Beethoven. Soloist Barry Tuckwell gave a sterling performance of the Strauss, balancing heroic and elegiac lines with flair and proportion. And the NSO, here playing the latter piece for the first time, appeared equally at home with the spiraling columns of sound so reminiscent of Sierra's former teacher, Gyorgy Ligeti.
Pretty though it is, "Sasima" lacks an emotional narrative. But Macal, the master magician, gave a compelling edge to instrumental colorations that otherwise would have been merely interesting.