Timbres of strings, winds and harpsichord stacked in throbbing dissonance, a grinding wall of sound melting into ordered harmony — so began the world, according to French baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel. So, too, began the National Symphony Orchestra’s program Thursday at the Kennedy Center, which opened with Rebel’s wildly imaginative “Le Cahos” (“Chaos”), the first movement of “Les Élémens” (“The Elements”). Under the skillful direction of early-music specialist Ton Koopman, the NSO offered a vibrant panorama of baroque and classical works.
The historical-performance movement has gained momentum in recent years, and this evening — a departure from mainstream symphonic programming — was imbued with its adventurous spirit. Although the NSO musicians played on modern instruments rather than baroque ones, there was no lack of authenticity, both in attention to historical details, such as the search for a purer sound without vibrato, and in the ensemble’s sincerity. A thoughtful narrative quality ran through the program, from the metaphor of creation in the baroque opening to the classical vocabulary by the evening’s end. Koopman, with exuberant charm, was an enthusiastic tour guide.
After “Le Cahos” came a suite from Jean Philippe Rameau’s “Les Indes Galantes” (“The Amorous Indies”), assembled by Koopman. Rameau’s opera sets its episodes in far-flung locales: Ottoman Turkey, Inca Peru, Persia and North America. Whirling country dances evoked the genteel tastes of Rameau’s Parisian audiences, yet the flavor of an exotic imaginary was distinctly present. Koopman underscored the suite’s more lighthearted moments with playfully timed flourishes, eliciting laughter from the audience. A symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach ended the first half, its more serious disposition contrasting the brightly energetic French works that preceded it.
The program’s highlight was undoubtedly Mozart’s Serenade No. 6 in D, the “Serenata Notturna,” which opened the second half. This showcased some of the orchestra’s principal players — Nurit Bar-Josef and Marissa Regni, violins; Daniel Foster, viola; Robert Oppelt, bass; Jauvon Gilliam, timpani — as well as the composer’s creativity, particularly the final rondo, led by Koopman at breakneck tempo, in which the soloists each got to riff on the rondo’s playful theme in cadenzas.
The program concluded with an elegant yet appropriately tongue-in-cheek rendition of Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, “La Poule” (“The Hen”). The first movement’s “clucking” theme, which reminded its early French audiences of the bobbing of a chicken’s head, was rendered with apt humor, and the andante second movement was tender and unhurried. A spirited minuet and galloping vivace brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation before Koopman led the orchestra in an encore, a repeat of Rameau’s “Rondeau.”
The evening as a whole offered an eloquent defense of the breadth and inventiveness of early music, upending the misconception that baroque music is serious or dull. It’s a rare treat to see a major orchestra tackle works like these.
Amanda Vosburgh was a 2018 fellow of the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
The program repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org/nso.