The National Symphony Orchestra's program last night at the Kennedy Center was a tribute to the late Antal Dorati, music director of the orchestra from 1970 to 1977. It was also a showcase for some of the orchestra's musicians.
Principal oboist Rudolph Vrbsky was an outstanding soloist in Dorati's charming, ingenious Divertimento for Oboe and Small Orchestra, which was commissioned for the NSO in 1976 by Robert Bialek. The music is notable for structural and melodic invention, but particularly for its masterful orchestration. Balancing a solo oboe with an orchestra is a challenge, particularly when percussion is used as lavishly as in this piece, but Dorati managed it with the skill of a composer who was also a conductor. Vrbsky gave a performance that made all this effort seem worthwhile.
The program opened with the overture to Haydn's "L'isola disabitata" ("The Desert Island"), one of the operas that Dorati rescued from two centuries of neglect with his recording. Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich has mastered 18th-century orchestral styles since becoming Dorati's successor, and his Haydn was not only vigorous, well balanced and beautifully played (with particularly fine string tone in the slow introduction), but shaped with a good sense of style.
This was less true of Bruckner's hour-long Symphony No. 2, in which the orchestra produced some gorgeous sounds but relatively little sense of form or forward motion. The problem lies largely with the composer, but conductors who specialize in his music manage to make it sound more interesting.
Before the concert, five members of the orchestra gave a recital of two Hungarian composers. Violinist Charles Wetherbee, violist Roberto Diaz and cellist Steven A. Honigberg caught the elegance and lyric grace of Dohnanyi's Serenade, Op. 10, and violinist William Steck and cellist Yvonne Caruthers found exactly the right intensely conversational tone for Kodaly's Duo for Violin and Cello.