The National Gallery Orchestra opened its season Sunday in the gallery's West Garden Court with a program of solid, recognized classics that are not quite in the classical top 40 but should be part of any orchestra's basic repertoire: Carl Maria von Weber's "Der Freischutz" Overture, Edward Elgar's first "Wand of Youth" Suite and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4.
In this auditorium--vast and reverberant, with marble walls and high ceilings--the concert you hear depends very much on where you are sitting. The experience can be striking from any part of the court, but the values are different.
Those who prefer clarity above the sense of immersion in surround-sound reverberations are advised to arrive well before the 7 p.m. starting time for the Sunday evening concerts and to find seats close to the stage.
Many people today (and I am sometimes among them) seem to want concert halls that sound something like a digital recording from an acoustically engineered studio. The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater is such an auditorium, and I love it. The National Gallery will never sound like that; even from the fourth row, where I sat Sunday night, the auditorium adds a rich resonance to the orchestral sound, and I love that, too. But up front, there is a higher sense of definition for the various sections and individual instruments, particularly at moderate tempos and dynamic levels.
At a greater distance, a piano can become larger than life, a string quartet can acquire some of the texture of a string orchestra and a brass quintet can remind you of the song "76 Trombones."
Washington has a number of concert venues with this kind of reverberant acoustical environment--two others are the Washington National Cathedral and the Great Hall of the Organization of American States--and they offer musical experiences different from the rather dry clarity fashionable today. Different but still well worth savoring.
So, the deeply satisfying concert that I heard Sunday night was one of many concerts being heard at the same time in the same auditorium, each offering a different type and level of satisfaction.
George Manos has been director of music at the National Gallery and conductor of the orchestra since 1985, and in that time has become a master of both the orchestra and its unique acoustic environment. That was evident from the quiet opening of the "Freischutz" Overture, with pacing and dynamics carefully calculated to work well in this auditorium, to its brilliant and boisterous conclusion, where the reverberation added a special flavor to the orchestra's joyful outburst of triumph.
The Elgar Suite is made up of material from his youthful sketchbooks reworked in his maturity, neatly matching the energy and imagination of his early years with the expert technique of his maturity, somewhat like the "Simple Symphony" of Benjamin Britten, who inherited Elgar's mantle as England's leading composer. The rapidly changing moods and textures of its seven movements were clearly characterized in this performance.
Beethoven's Fourth is the gentlest of his nine symphonies, a calm interval and fine artistic contrast between his more muscular Third and Fifth and perhaps more suitable than either of them for a National Gallery performance. Manos's affectionate interpretation brought out its lovable qualities.
Upcoming Sunday evening concerts at the National Gallery will include pianist Jerome Rose on Sunday, baritone Chris Pedro Trakas (singing Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe") Oct. 17, violinist Oleh Krysa Oct. 24 and pianist James Dick Oct. 31.