The American Chamber Orchestra managed something unusual Monday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. It gave a program of baroque music with one composer there to accept the warm applause. Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann could not be present; both had 300th birthdays during the 1980s. But Richard Names, who is 250-odd years younger, was able to take several bows after the Washington premiere of his Symphony for Strings, a work that peps up familiar baroque forms and formulas with some pleasantly modern flavors.
It shared the program with three of the finest orchestral works of the baroque era: Telemann's playful Suite in A minor for flute and strings, his gravely serene Concerto in G for viola, and Bach's spectacular "Brandenburg" Concerto No. 5. It worked well in that company; it is expertly made, with some fine dance rhythms, a bit of dialogue among the orchestra's sections and warm melody in the slow movement, and its stylistic affinities are at least as strong for the 18th century as for the 20th. Conductor William Yarborough announced that it will be played on all TWA flights for the next two months, then led a performance that made the audience feel like it was flying.
In the Suite, Toshiko Kohno's solo was lithe, clean-lined and agile, and she sounded good against the string background. The Viola Concerto was played by Richard Parnas, who has just retired as principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra -- retired at the height of his powers, to judge by this performance. His tone was rich and deep, his phrasing finely articulated and full of feeling, and the orchestra (made up largely of NSO colleagues) interacted with him sensitively.
The "Brandenburg" No. 5 had occasional balance problems early in its first movement: Kohno's flute was louder than the violin and the harpsichord was sometimes inaudible. These cleared up, however, by the time harpsichordist William Neil tore into his cadenza, which he played with proper elan. William Haroutounian's dual responsibility as concertmaster and violin soloist may have reduced his panache in the first movement, but he played beautifully in the second movement (which is pure chamber music) and the finale.
Besides selecting a program with fine balance, clever contrasts and no weaknesses, music director Yarborough conducted it with a fine ear for its various musical possibilities. His tempos were well chosen, his accents precise, and his orchestra's ensemble playing was good.