NSO at Wolf Trap

Saturday's concert by the National Symphony Orchestra was a mostly Russian evening at Wolf Trap, except for the Dances From "Gayaneh," a ballet by Aram Khachaturian, the Armenian born in Georgia who lived and worked in Moscow. Under assistant conductor Takao Kanayama, the NSO program gave the capacity audience a sampling of the Russian orchestral palette with its instrumental colors ranging from the gloomy brass and melancholic woodwinds to precisely measured percussion effects.

The program was hardly novel: Dmitri Kabalevsky's overture to his opera "Colas Breugnon," Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (with 20-year-old Leila Josefowicz as soloist) and his "1812" Overture, Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" (orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) and Khachaturian's piece.

After the first movement, Josefowicz's visceral energy and sensational passage work had many listeners on their feet, so enraptured that Kanayama had to motion them to sit down. Josefowicz is, no doubt, a wizard at her instrument. But the wearisome concerto has long passed its day, as reflected in the NSO's merely dutiful playing of an orchestral assignment that hardly challenges.

As always, the "1812" was a winner, with a divided brass section partway back at the audience's sides, and the cannons of South Bend Replicas boisterously having their say to prepare for the Fourth of July.

McFerrin & Corea

Concertgoers who know Bobby McFerrin only for his a cappella jazz noodlings might have been surprised by the disciplined, shapely readings of Prokofiev's "Classical" and Mendelssohn's "Italian" symphonies that he conducted at Wolf Trap on Friday. Establishing lively and rock-steady tempos, McFerrin drew loving phrasing and teasing rubatos from the National Symphony Orchestra and tapped into the exuberant vein of songfulness in both works.

McFerrin also led a warm performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, with jazz keyboard legend Chick Corea as soloist. (The two have recorded the piece and performed it on PBS.) I remember hearing Corea play this concerto in New York 15 years ago, when he created a real charge with his blue-note ornaments and progressive-jazz cadenzas. Now he's casting a wider stylistic net. The cadenzas were redolent as much of Liszt, Debussy and Albeniz as they were of jazz, and shorter solo passages were minted with subtler recalibrations of rhythm and voicing.

Corea and McFerrin delighted the jazz faithful in the audience with four improvised duets. McFerrin set the tone for each, but the greatest excitement lay in Corea's free-form explorations. When McFerrin impersonated a Latin percussion section, Corea plucked playful counter-rhythms on the piano strings, and the singer's abstract little vocalise leading into "Autumn Leaves" inspired Corea to deconstruct the song into haunting, atonal clouds around the vocal line.

Melford & Ehrlich

There was some whining at the Myra Melford and Marty Ehrlich performance Saturday night--from the siren of a passing ambulance to the pleas of children in the audience who didn't want to be there. But pianist Melford and reed player Ehrlich ignored any distractions and filled the Western Presbyterian Church in Foggy Bottom with beautiful music.

Both performers are closely linked with the often manic energy of experimental jazz, but they began with two Ehrlich compositions, "The Open Return" and "Duiloquy," with quiet, relaxed melodies that were a pleasant surprise. Ehrlich played clarinet on the former and bass clarinet on the latter, wrapping the instruments' distinctive tones around Melford's spacious accompaniment. Melford's "Yet Can Spring (For Don Pullen)" featured the pianist at her more common breakneck pace; she possesses one of the most fluid right hands in jazz, playing notes at such a furious speed it's remarkable that her solos still sound so clear-minded. Melford's harmonic leaps and racing melodies are a pleasure to follow, as on "Blood Garden," whose compositional style recalled the turn-on-a-dime scores of legendary Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling. Ehrlich and Melford alternated relaxed and harried works for the rest of the 75-minute set, ending with an encore of improvised avant-blues that proved how sure these two are in any musical setting.

CAPTION: Bobby McFerrin proved to be an able symphonic conductor as well as an inspired vocalizer.