The National Symphony Orchestra is offering something of a grab bag this week. Music director Leonard Slatkin often opts for unified, symbiotic programming, but it is difficult to tell what Ludwig van Beethoven's Overture to "The Creatures of Prometheus," Edgar Meyer's Violin Concerto and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 have in common except a general amiability and the simple fact that they were all played in the same concert last night at the Kennedy Center.
Still, it was sufficient. I usually enjoy Slatkin's way with early Beethoven, and his performance of the "Prometheus" Overture -- rushing and electric yet shot through with a proud classicism -- did not disappoint. Slatkin resists putting Beethoven on a pedestal, thank heavens, and this short work was suffused with a wit and vigor that would have done credit to Rossini.
Edgar Meyer is best known as the polymath bassist who plays unaccompanied Bach suites and yee-haw country string music with equal sympathy. His Violin Concerto -- commissioned and played by the prodigiously gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn -- proved light music of a high order. It sounded rather like what Aaron Copland and John Adams (the composer, not the president) might have come up with had they teamed their very different sensibilities -- a sort of minimalist Americana.
Meyer's writing for violin is highly virtuosic but never ostentatious, and it was as luscious child's play to the fastidious, wellingly songful Hahn, who seems incapable of playing a vulgar or unreflected phrase. The orchestration is idiosyncratic in the extreme -- sparse, reiterative and likely to impress listeners as either mantric and mysterious or simply muddy. Myself, I liked the concerto: It is plainspoken, unpretentious and immediately engaging, and I suspect it will wear well.
Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is the composer's gentlest, sunniest and most purely affirmative work, scored for full orchestra but maintaining throughout the clarity and economy of chamber music. For once, he never lets the lower brass run the show; moreover, the artistic personality on display is serenely likable rather than wild-eyed and distraught. The opening movement could have used another rehearsal: This is music of an almost-Mozartean transparency, and anything less than pristine passagework simply will not do. But the Scherzo was bright and richly detailed and the gorgeous third movement -- which always calls to mind a fantasia on the first-act quartet in Beethoven's "Fidelio" -- was built in one long, glorious arc.
It will doubtless be said that Linda Hohenfeld was chosen as the soloist in the last movement of the Mahler because she is, in private life, Mrs. Leonard Slatkin. This is true enough, I fear, for it is hard to imagine that the small, quavery soprano voice heard last night would have prevailed over many other candidates in an open audition. This movement is not terribly challenging -- Leonard Bernstein once recorded it with a boy soprano -- and there were moments when Hohenfeld brought an affectless purity to Mahler's musical evocation of the paradise to come. Nevertheless, this "family affair," however well intentioned, proved a disappointing and depressingly provincial way to end a good concert.
The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8.