The National Symphony Orchestra concert last evening was officially part of the Kennedy Center's introductory "Prelude Festival." Yet the orchestra worked in such confident musical strokes that it sounded as though the ensemble had already reached full stride. With Musical Director Leonard Slatkin at the podium and superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman the featured soloist, the orchestra gave full-bodied readings of what could easily have been a regular season performance.
Even though Slatkin has a few more years to shape the orchestra before he steps down at the end of the 2007-08 season, the concert bespoke the strong influence that the maestro from Los Angeles has already exerted. Here in the program was a healthy dose of British and American 20th-century music, the conductor's well-known passions. Each work unsurprisingly leaned strongly toward the conservative side, avoiding the jagged, rigorous harmonies that Slatkin seems to find so distasteful.
Here, too, was actual musicmaking that was Slatkin through and through: warmly harmonious strings, polished brass, agile woodwinds. Anchoring each section were the superb principal players who have risen during his tenure. Concertmaster Nurit-Bar Josef, cellist David Hardy, oboist Rudolph Vrbsky and horn principal Martin Hackleman provided superbly crafted solos.
After a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the orchestra and audience, the NSO launched into a buoyant account of the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's "Oberon," which built from initial pastoral horn calls to some rollicking swells. Slatkin put the lithe rhythms and shapely lines of this celebratory work in high relief. Yet the reading never ignored the underlying turns of phrase that give the piece its full verve and color.
A lush account of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus' " possessed a diaphanous, Old World quality. This glowing 1939 string essay upholsters one of the most time-tested folk songs in a multi-hued fabric of sound. Slatkin's reading was carefully delivered yet never stodgy, allowing the plucked harps, descending string phrases and spindly melodies to emerge naturally and without pretense.
Perlman joined the orchestra in Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14. Over the past several years, the virtuoso has increasingly put some of his enormous musical experience into conducting and teaching. Yet that entrancingly sweet sound is still there when he fully applies himself.
Even if the work drew more on his expressive abilities than his peerless virtuosity, Perlman certainly invested his musical energies in the American composer's concerto. The soloist found the emotional center of each movement, a few intonation infelicities aside. He sensitively found the balance between tenderness and strength in the first movement, holding a plush line through the shifting orchestral textures. The lyrical second movement adagio built to a poignant climax, before giving way to the churning finale.
The first movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36, was brilliantly polished, filled with gleaming brass, steely percussion and supercharged string melodies. Fueling this Tchaikovsky were smart tempos, pure heart-on-the-sleeve emotion, and drama.
This fine concert repeats tonight and tomorrow evening at the Kennedy Center.