National Symphony Orchestra

At 32, Mischa Santora, the young Swiss conductor who presided over the National Symphony's Wolf Trap concert Saturday, is already enmeshed in the sort of jet-setting career that orchestral conductors have come to accept as standard. He is the director of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. He guest-conducts orchestras throughout Europe and North and South America, and has just been appointed music director of the International Opera Festival in Miskolc, Hungary. Clearly, one thing he has learned from all this activity is how to communicate his ideas quickly and clearly.

His program of pieces by Gershwin, Richard Strauss and Mendelssohn covered a varied musical landscape, and Santora found deft ways to keep each new vista in focus. Ian Parker, a technically assured and enthusiastic young Canadian pianist, was the soloist in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which opened the program, and he emphasized a careful, almost academic reading that only opened up into true blues head-nodding passion as the music headed into its homestretch. Parker offered a well-thought-out approach projected with extraordinarily cleanly etched textures.

Clarinetist Loren Kitt and bassoonist Sue Heineman, both NSO section leaders, were the soloists in the Strauss "Duet-Concertino," a late and, for Strauss, modest piece, with chamber music dimensions and the lyrical qualities of his late songs. They fashioned their collaboration both comfortably and agilely and merged easily into the orchestra sonority when they needed to.

Santora's reading of the Mendelssohn "Italian" Symphony was fleet, light and beautifully shaped and, until the last movement when the beginnings of phrases lost their poise, the orchestra made this all sound easy. The concert ended with a vividly colorful and expansive reading of the Gershwin "An American in Paris."

-- Joan Reinthaler

'Testament to Freedom'

Randall Thompson knew how to set the English language to music, as Friday's performance of his "Testament of Freedom" at the Washington National Cathedral evidenced. The Cathedral Choral Society Summer Chorus, Fairfax Choral Society members and the U.S. Army Orchestra joined to offer a jubilant program of "Fanfares and Flourishes," crowned by the Thompson. Gisele Becker prepared the chorus, alternating as conductor with the orchestra's music director, Lt. Col. Tony Cason.

Led by Cason, the performance of Thompson's "Testament," written in 1943 to texts of Thomas Jefferson, was one of magnitude and an overwhelming beauty that brought tears to some listeners. Often suffused with ominously throbbing percussion and orchestral sonority, the voices held true to music uncannily faithful to the rhythms and inflections of American English and Jefferson's oratory bent on Americans' "resolve to die freemen rather than to live slaves."

A trickle of irony drifted through the program as works proclaiming "righteous" war against tyrants -- Copland's blazing "Fanfare for the Common Man" and less effective "Canticle of Freedom" -- were oddly conjoined with paeans to monarchs -- Handel's "Coronation Anthem I" and "Royal Fireworks Music."

Along with a sterling brass choir, organ soloist J. Reilly Lewis lent martial momentum to Dupre's "Poeme Heroique," written to rededicate Verdun Cathedral's organ, destroyed in World War One. Becker conducted an awe-inspiring version of Thompson's incomparable vocal "Alleluia."

-- Cecelia Porter

Mischa Santora was the conductor with the National Symphony at Wolf Trap.