Say this for Kurt Masur: In the eight years since he stepped in as the New York Philharmonic's music director in 1991, he has built what had become a depressingly ragtag ensemble back into one of America's most distinguished orchestras.
Still, the Philharmonic's concert last night at the Kennedy Center--sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society and the first stop on a five-city American tour--was somewhat perplexing, mostly because none of the pieces on the program seemed to have much to do with one another. It was as if they had been selected by lottery.
The evening began with Prokofiev's ever-welcome Symphony No. 1 in D ("Classical"). This charming little compote combines grand, giddy tunes, prismatic orchestration and abundant good humor. Here is proof positive that Prokofiev could smile as well as smirk.
Masur's tempos were vigorous, engaging and on the brisk side--indeed, sometimes too fast for his violinists, whose playing occasionally lacked the final degree of polish. But there was some superb piping in the closing Molto Vivace: Do flutists Sandra Church and Mindy Kaufman ever have to breathe?
The centerpiece of the program was commissioned by the Philharmonic and first performed in New York last April--Sofia Gubaidulina's "Two Paths: Music for Two Solo Violas and Symphony Orchestra," featuring violists Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young, both members of the Philharmonic. Gubaidulina, who came to attention in the 1980s as one of the most advanced and eclectic of Soviet composers, now lives in Germany.
"Two Paths" is an odd work; throughout its long, gray duration, I felt as if I were somehow missing the point, yet I was never interested enough in the music to want to go back and explore it further. The piece seemed stiffly formal--blocks of sound placed side by side, with only the most minute cross-fertilization. The "melodies" for viola were often simple scalar passages, going up and down or down and up; the lower brass snorted a great deal; there was very little sense of narrative pull; and the writing for viola was neither flattering nor interesting.
Yet there were moments to admire--the exciting outburst of riotous dissonance near the conclusion (after a preponderance of buzzing, chantlike stasis) and some mistily radiant background music for tuned percussion. Phelps and Young played with symbiosis and style, while Masur drew a committed (if perhaps befuddled) performance from the Philharmonic. Although he is not a particularly demonstrative conductor on the podium, he has obviously drilled his forces well.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A closed the program. This was an interpretation set squarely in the great Germanic tradition; if there were few surprises, there was the constant joy of hearing such music come to life yet again, with such idiomatic authority.
The opening Poco Sostenuto-Vivace was played quickly and with appropriate assertion. The famous Allegretto, so often rendered in a gloomy or downright funereal manner, was kept up to tempo. Bad playing can make this sound like some weird orchestration of Morse code, but the Philharmonic surrounded the recurrent thematic motto with a performance of melting and surpassing lyricism.
The most exciting moments of the evening came when the brass blared out at full volume during the trio of the Presto. They sounded like a group of super-heroes, absolutely unafraid of any flubs or plumbing errors as they tested the limits of their instruments, and how often do we hear that? The finale was disappointing, however; it lacked full rhythmic definition and proved merely fast and loud rather than primal and exhilarating.
CAPTION: Violists Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young with New York Phil- harmonic conductor Kurt Masur last night at the Kennedy Center.
CAPTION: The Philharmonic's Cynthia Phelps, left, and Rebecca Young, all smiles after their "Two Paths" performance.