The National Symphony Orchestra’s subscription season is off to a good start. Thursday night’s concert, led by the French conductor Ludovic Morlot, may not have hit the highs of last week’s outing under Donald Runnicles, which seems to have left everyone feeling happy. Morlot did, though, get the orchestra to show its colors — many of them, with a lot of winds and brass, starting with a delicious wallow in the low brass in Berlioz’s overture to “Les Francs-Juges,” which the orchestra hadn’t played since 1987 under Mstislav Rostropovich.
The program consisted of French and Spanish works that seem canonical but that the orchestra had not played for some time (apart from Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which the orchestra last played at a family concert in 2012). Morlot, the music director of the Seattle Symphony, has a particular affinity for French music, and he showed it here with detailed conducting and attention to the richness of the scores. If there was a weakness, it was in a tendency to the emphatic, which led to a slightly ponderous, heavy-handed stress of the beats in the last part of the Berlioz. There was a sense of being careful, perhaps to try to keep the instruments in line, and Ravel’s smoky, billowing scores — “Pavane for a Dead Princess” and “Rapsodie Espagnole” — came across as very pretty and slightly soporific in their languor as a result, despite such highlights as the ravishing golden horn line in the “Pavane.”
The orchestra was definitely crisper during the first half of the program than the second, perhaps partly thanks to the presence of Sharon Isbin, the guitarist who represented luxurious replacement casting for the originally scheduled soloist, Milos Karadaglic, who had to withdraw because of a hand injury. Isbin is arguably today’s most famous active guitarist, supremely competent and much honored and the subject of a recent documentary, “Sharon Isbin: Troubadour.” She offers an intense, elastic sound, resilient and nuanced and controlled and brought across in all its detail with the help of a microphone (necessary in orchestral performances with this instrument). She made a small odyssey out of Joaquin Rodrigo’s familiar “Concierto de Aranjuez,” which she last played with the NSO in 1997. Morlot damped down the ensemble but kept it springily responsive, making for some lovely juxtapositions in, for example, the second movement, when, after a long, introverted and focused solo, the orchestra surged gently in to support the crystalline plucks of finger on string. Isbin played an even more virtuosic encore, a waltz (Op. 8, No. 4) by the Paraguayan composer Agustín Barrios Mangore.
It was startling, after so much control, to hear the orchestra grow slightly flabby in some of the ensemble chords of the Ravel works.
Notable, in the “Rapsodie Espagnole,” was the instrument brandished by the contrabassoonist, Lewis Lipnick. Lipnick normally plays a contraforte, a variant on the bassoon, but for this piece he brandished an elongated metal instrument — a sarrusophone, a double-reed instrument invented in the mid-19th century, now almost completely forgotten, for which both this piece and the Dukas were originally scored. It was arguably worth exhuming, not just for the curiosity value but for the touch of golden tone color it provided in the depths of the music.
The program repeats Friday at 11:30 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m.