Alessandro Siciliani, who two seasons ago conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in an all-Italian program, returned to the podium at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday night with an all-French program -- and selections that ranged from the virtually unknown to the all-too-familiar.
Saint-Saens's Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, happily falls into neither category. It is simply good music that enjoys a steady popularity, and anyone who hasn't heard it should buy a ticket and hear Siciliani conduct it Tuesday night. One is not likely to hear a better performance for some time.
The reason was clear to anyone who sat through Thursday night's performance. Siciliani is a master draftsman and his grand designs through the two movements were impeccable. The Adagios were beautifully measured with fine, precise woodwind colorations and delicate strings. He rarely pressed the dynamics, but preferred much of the quite loud sections to hover around the mezzo forte level. The result was simply breathtaking. Organist William Neil's cataclysmic forte in the second section combined with cymbal crashes, noble strings and majestic brass would put a lump in anyone's throat.
Why Edouard Lalo's Symphony in G Minor (written in 1886, the same year as the Saint-Saens piece) is not performed more often is an utter mystery. Sir Thomas Beecham in his day was a great champion of the work: Siciliani might be the new acolyte. The music has vitality, is pregnant with ideas and never overstays its welcome. A versatile NSO woodwind section blessed the Vivace with a magnificent flutter of sound at the start, and the strings followed with equal zest and control in the light-as-a-souffle Allegro.
Ravel's "Bolero," which closed the concert, was obviously an audience-pleaser. Apparently the composer grew to despise the work, but then Ravel don't know Bo. Siciliani certainly knew his stuff, as did the NSO, which played the eternal crescendo with only one major gaffe before disappearing into a gigantic fortissimo.