With all the current hoopla over baroque performance practice, the National Symphony Orchestra's program on Thursday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall proved instructive. Rather than conjuring the kind of orchestral sound Bach and his contemporaries might have heard, conductor Jose Luis Garcia reminded us how 18th-century music was treated circa 1960.
It was a short program of chestnuts--Handel's "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba" from "Solomon," Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Suite No. 3, Boyce's Symphony No. 5 and the Corelli "Christmas Concerto"--the unadventurousness itself a throwback to the days less obsessed by early music. Garcia's conducting of the reduced orchestra (roughly half the full NSO) might have set authenticists' teeth on edge but would have seemed familiar to anyone weaned on the recordings of Neville Marriner, Raymond Leppard or Colin Davis.
Vibrato was freely employed, making for a rich string sonority. Tempos stayed unchallengingly middle-of-the-road except for the big slamming of brakes that heralded the end of each movement. Phrasing was scrupulously clean and metrical, the overall emotional cast lively but cool. This was, in short, safe and sane modern playing designed for a big hall.
It's an approach that still has many adherents--indeed, the old-fashioned sumptuousness of tone brought its own satisfactions and the audience ate up all the high-gloss perkiness. But more and more, the treatment of baroque music as just so much fodder for a modern symphony orchestra seems an aesthetic no man's land. Yes, Garcia sidestepped the abrasiveness and didacticism period bands can fall victim to. But he also missed their sense of drama, their panoply of ear-catching sounds, the improvisatory feeling that free ornamentation provides.
Conversely, if filling a big, 20th-century concert hall with sound is the issue, why stop at half measures? Imagine the Kennedy Center rafters ringing with the gargantuan delights of Elgar's Handel arrangements, the Bach transcriptions of Schoenberg and Stokowski or the Goosens/Beecham "Messiah." Garcia studied with that legendary Brucknerian Sergiu Celibidache: He's just the guy to start a bigger-is-better baroque counterrevolution.
Garcia's training under that Romanian maestro showed itself clearly in the combination of gorgeous tone and crystal-clear detail he drew from his musicians. The brass burbled with silver-tongued joy through the Boyce and the Bach Suite. Violins dispatched Handel's jaunty rhythms with surgical accuracy. NSO associate concertmaster Elizabeth Adkins and principal second violin Marissa Regni were affectionately lyrical soloists in the Corelli.
Garcia himself played the Bach concerto. If his bowing produced some glassy tone and a handful of flat notes in the outer movements, his andante was glowingly intense, with generous vibrato pulsing throughout. As conductor, too, slow movements pulled the most imaginative responses from him. The pastorale finale of the Corelli possessed a rapt grace, and the famous Air from the Bach Suite brought an expansiveness worthy of Tchaikovsky.
Clearly, Garcia chooses to meet symphony players on their own stylistic ground, and baroque music is treated as just one part of their active repertoire. But specialist conductors like Hogwood and Koopman have inspired the NSO to a thrilling new sound. Perhaps their work can point the orchestra toward a true marriage of period scholarship and modern polish.