National Symphony Orchestra

With Gareth Johnson

You know it's summer when the National Symphony Orchestra relocates temporarily to Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the forested setting near Rock Creek that hosts much of Washington's hot-weather fare. Under conductor Joan Landry in her NSO debut, the orchestra began a concert there Friday with its summer signature piece, Bernstein's Overture to "Candide." The music was given all the frothy buoyancy needed for this all-American plein-air delight.

The star of the evening was 18-year-old violinist Gareth Johnson, a multi-award winner, who offered impressive accounts of Mozart's Violin Concerto in D, K. 218, and Saint-Saens's "Havanaise," Op. 83. About the same age as Mozart when he wrote the concerto, Johnson conveyed all the Allegro's fusion of youthful elan and courtly grace, the sweetly rounded lyricism of the Andante and the Rondeau's playful wit. He showed himself to be a confident soloist who combines sensitive control of the bow with right-on intonation and nicely detailed phrasing. Johnson's version of the "Havanaise" again exhibited all these qualities in a properly nostalgic way, plus a welcome bravado and sonorous depth.

Composer William Grant Still, who died in 1978, gave voice to blues, jazz and many other African American elements in his music. Landry led the NSO in his "Festive Overture" without an ounce of festive vigor -- the players, in fact, sounded reluctant and lackluster -- but two movements from Dvorak's "New World" Symphony ended things more exuberantly.

-- Cecelia Porter

NSO 'All-American Salute'

Any outdoor symphonic concert presented free and featuring popular light classics will draw a hospitable audience. Saturday evening's gloom and drizzle did not deter the hardy souls who assembled at Carter Barron Amphitheatre to see Emil de Cou lead the National Symphony Orchestra in a concert titled "All-American Salute," and they were rewarded with musicmaking as sunny as everyone wished the early evening had been.

From the podium, de Cou made some witty remarks about the inclement circumstances; he also shortened the program to ensure that the John Williams scores that were to close the concert would not be washed away. The program opened with a spirited and colorful performance of Morton Gould's "American Salute." Gently pointed rhythms and stylish playing ensured that the lighter classics on the program also came off well, especially pieces by Leroy Anderson and David Rose.

The NSO played with verve in selections from Copland's "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring," with unconducted birds contributing subtle, felicitous grace notes to the rapt performance of the "Prairie Night" section of "Billy." And even though a sprinkle had begun, de Cou and the NSO managed to give Williams's "Harry Potter" symphonic suite a little true pathos and successfully launch the flying theme from "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial."

Happily, the rain let up just as E.T. soared, allowing de Cou to conduct the audience's handclapping in Sousa's "Washington Post" march, thus giving the audience an opportunity to shake off any remaining moisture.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

Gravity Optional

At first glance, Gravity Optional seems a misnomer for the Williamsburg-based dance company that performed Saturday at Dance Place. But then, these dancers don't intend to defy gravity, they embrace it: hugging the ground, reveling in the weighty pull of the Earth as arms and torsos rebound from effortful swings and bends. They don't soar, they sink. And that was the problem with the program, four works by Joan Gavaler and two by her colleague Denise Damon Wade, company co-directors and professors at the College of William and Mary. None rose above a modest level of energy.

The opener, "burnt edges," featured a dynamic score by jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, yet Wade gave her dancers little interesting choreography to match the multi-syllabic pings and blurts that McFerrin uses to make his music an adventure. For "Overload," Wade culled the sound score from historic footage. Snippets from broadcasts of space launches and political speeches, horrific disasters like the Hindenburg explosion and so forth provided a barrage of images, yet the six white-clad dancers were given little movement to live up to the weighty ideas the score provokes.

The spoken text to Gavaler's "Virus Warning 42: A Poetry Reading," written by the choreographer's brother, is too arch for the simple and redundant gestures the three dancers perform. This work underscored a reason many dancers become dancers: Speaking onstage doesn't come naturally to them, leaving the recitation forced and amateurish.

Gavaler's solo, "Impulses," contains an interesting seed of an idea -- drawing movement material from the gestures of American Sign Language -- but the piece is a cipher. "Nostalgia (Starry Night Again)" relied on pop music clips -- and again, given the lack of energy or inventive movement, the same effect could have been gained by flipping channels on a radio.

-- Lisa Traiger

Delays

It's not unusual for rock bands to treat their songs a little more harshly in public than they did in the studio. Friday night at the 9:30 club, however, Delays went further than that.

The Southampton, England, quartet quickened its easygoing tempos and offset frontman Greg Gilbert's lilting falsetto with blaring feedback and air-raid-siren synth lines. To judge from the heavy-rock tune that Gilbert introduced as the band's new British single, Delays may have outgrown the phase that produced its charming debut album, "Faded Seaside Glamour."

On some songs, the shift in emphasis was minor: The synthesizers of Aaron Gilbert (brother of the singer) became a bit more brazen, and the drums of Rowley Fox (brother of bassist Colin Fox) a little more assertive.

The appeal of such airborne folk-rock numbers as "Hey Girl" and "Wanderlust" was unblemished by the band's earthier approach. If Greg Gilbert's vocals were sometimes throatier than on the album, he and the other singers -- everyone but Rowley -- blended like choirboys during the unison chorales of tunes such as "Nearer Than Heaven."

Delays was no less assured when performing its more raucous material, just less interesting. When the band's timbres turned caustic and the beats industrial, its music flirted with ordinariness.

While the set-closing "Long Time Coming" managed to soar as it churned, most of the harder-edged songs steered the band toward what sounded like a dead end.

-- Mark Jenkins

Gareth Johnson was the soloist with the NSO on Friday at Carter Barron.