Conductor John Eliot Gardiner has been at the forefront of baroque music for so long that one sometimes needs a reminder that his talents extend into the 19th century and beyond. Gardiner and the National Symphony Orchestra jogged memories anew Thursday night at the Kennedy Center with works by Chabrier, Brahms and Schumann. Besides some outstanding individual efforts from NSO principals, what stood out was the collective level of intensity achieved by detail-oriented overviews of the scores. Gardiner's baroque investigations have real transfer value in the context of bigger, louder and more plentiful modern instruments. He seems to put himself in the audience's position, striving to have them hear the music unfold clearly, spared from any exaggerated rhetoric.
Before Gardiner and the NSO launched into their sprightly account of the scheduled program opener, Chabrier's Overture to "Gwendoline," they observed Aaron Copland's recent passing with "Fanfare for the Common Man," a poignant brass and percussion salute. The Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77, brought forth the estimable talents of soloist Joshua Bell, who, like the orchestra, lacked spontaneity until the first-movement cadenza, which he wrote. At this point Bell assumed the role of fiery virtuoso, inspiring everyone else to bear down. At the end of the concerto, Bell received numerous curtain calls and a standing ovation also directed toward the NSO for its precise, crisp playing.
In Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, No. 1 in B-flat, the NSO stayed closely attuned to his programmatic implications. The finale, a farewell to spring, featured a lovely flute interlude played by Toshiko Kohno plus some quick exchanges between French horn and trombone as spring danced its way into summer.