National Symphony Orchestra

How well can music describe art?

The National Symphony Orchestra answered that question at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night, using conventional musical techniques to depict the ambitious scale and complexity of American composer Jefferson Friedman's "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly," a work which audibly conveys an intriguing sculpture of "outsider art" of the same name.

The composition evoked James Hampton's three-tiered religious testimony created from metallic foils, wood furniture and other items he scavenged from his job as a janitor or found on the streets of Washington.

In two contrasting sections the music expressed both the power and fragility of the artwork by massive swells in tempo and volume that repeatedly resolved in serenity. The antiphonal effects of brass players surrounding the orchestra and independent string quartets on the edges of the stage lent an Ives quality and added tension and texture to the piece. Bucolic winds and strings in a chorale setting hammered home religious overtones in the second section. As chimes rang, the piece concluded in predictable harmony in contrast to its initial chaos.

The rest of the NSO's program was more mainstream. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's pizazz and self-assured clarity evoked images of a jazz combo with his swinging interpretation of George Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. The clarinet section was a lushly fitting reflection of a big band saxophone choir; and the attentive brass section and Thibaudet's emphatic technique gave the work a delicious bite.

Slatkin's breakneck tempos in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 made it difficult to enjoy inflections in the presto movement as they flashed by. But the rousing final movement was subtle enough to savor gentle cello pizzicatos while containing all the force and majesty that is Beethoven.

The program will be performed again tonight at 8.

-- Gail Wein

John Scofield

Like fellow jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who has recorded in a similarly wide variety of settings, John Scofield still enjoys playing as he did early in his career, supported only by a bassist and drummer.

"En Route," Scofield's recent trio release, set the mood and pace for his concert at the Wolf Trap Barns on Thursday night. It also inspired some seemingly telepathic interplay onstage, featuring drummer Bill Stewart and bassist John Patitucci. Displaying customary finesse, Scofield smoothly covered a lot of ground, from swing and bop to funk and country. Fluid single-note choruses, colorfully tweaked harmonies and resounding thumb-stroked octaves often surfaced, with both "Travel John" and "Hammock Soliloquy" building to an exhilarating pitch.

At times Stewart sounded as if he were connected to Scofield at the hip. He added perfectly placed accents, triggered conversational gambits and often used his tom-toms to generate the kind of tumbling syncopations the guitarist thrives on. Patitucci, meanwhile, fleshed out the sound with a resonant tone on acoustic bass and fashioned terse, melodic, neatly resolved solos. Tunes associated with Ray Charles (the country hit "You Don't Know Me") and Louis Armstrong ( "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?") quietly punctuated the concert. The Charles tribute was particularly enjoyable. It began in free time with Scofield softly introducing melody, then harmonically shading the bridge, then freely improvising without ever losing the thematic thread.

The trio saved the vintage jazz anthem "Wee" for the encore, capping the performance on a bright and bop-ish note.

-- Mike Joyce

Joan Baez

The star was having a hard night, and she wanted drugs. After the well-deserved applause for a moving version of Phil Ochs's "There but for Fortune," Joan Baez demanded: "Bring me my DayQuil."

The folk legend had, as she put it, a "funky throat." She despaired aloud to the Birchmere crowd on Thursday: "I want to do my best for you, and it aggravates me!" Indeed, although her opening a cappella offering of the universal peace hymn "Finlandia" was dramatic, it was also pretty scratchy. After a full-band rendition of Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter" taxed both her voice and the audience's concept of genres -- it's one of those sorta-rockers favored by Baez's musical director/percussionist, George Javori, and at odds with her educated diction and songbird warbling -- she swigged from what she called a "hot toddy."

Thereafter, this most undivalike of divas was a trouper, leading her band -- and sometimes the audience -- through the familiar ("Joe Hill"), the unexpected (Natalie Merchant's "Motherland"), the political (Steve Earle's "Christmas in Washington") and the personal (Janis Ian's "Jesse"). During "Elvis Presley Blues," a Gillian Welch song, Baez even offered a little bump-and-grind that would have sent most folks her age to the orthopedist. By the time she encored with the lilting "Gracias a la Vida," it didn't matter whether there was a doctor in the house.

Baez's second encore was "Forever Young." A charming song, yes. But despite her preference for songs by writers a generation or two after her own, and despite the presence of her talented twentyish opening act, Thea Gilmore, one can be glad that Baez, for all her youthful exuberance, has lived so long and aged so well.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Jean-Yves Thibaudet brought the vibe of a jazz club to the Kennedy Center.Joan Baez soared at the Birchmere despite a balky instrument.