Just before the nightingale's recorded song filled the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall last night, guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who has led the National Symphony Orchestra more than 200 times, dropped his hands, slumped at the podium, and stood with downcast head, his body supported by the railing, almost as if he had been overtaken by sleep.
The audience murmured faintly.
The musicians were in the middle of the third section of Pini di Roma by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) which the program said includes "a thrill in the air....a nightingale sings." The production slowed for just a few seconds, and notes softened. Near the maestro sat two female violinists, clearly stunned by the event. They exchanged glances, immediately lay down their instruments, and rushed to the conductor's aid, helping him to a sitting position on the steps of the podium
As fast as cymbals chime, Mr. Fruhbeck's body straightened, he lifted his hand and baton, and from his sitting position where he remained for the duration of the piece, he led the performers through the last few minutes of Respighi's fiery finish.
When the music stopped, the conductor rose and stood without assistance, and facing the audience, placed his hand on his chest momentarily, acknowledging the orchestra members and the audience, and walked off the stage by himself.
The crowd clamored and cried to see him again who obliged the demands, returning to the stage without assistance to wave and accept gratitude from the well-wishers. He turned and walked off, but the vociferous crowd, which it had been all evening, wanted more.
Suddenly, the lead violinists, no doubt exhausted and emotionally wrung, quickly stood and literally marched off the stage ending the accolade from the packed house, fuller than I have seen it in a long time.
Throughout most of the evening's performance I had marveled at the hearty enthusiasm expressed by the audience, happy and glad to be at a concert on a Friday night with springtime advancing, robins chirping, and daffodils ready to parade their grace and color for Washingtonians to admire. (Good riddance, Winter!)
Earlier, before intermission, the guest pianist who turned 23 on March 5 and was making his NSO debut, Daniil Trifonov, delivered a rousing "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" written by his Russian comrade, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Mr. Trifonov's fingers moved up and down and away from the keyboard as fast as if he were touching a hot stove. He crouched over the piano like cradling a newborn. (You can never go wrong with Rachmaninoff.)
"Bravo!" the mostly standing audience shouted repeatedly at his finish, producing four encores which Trifonov answered energetically with an unusually lengthy, but well received, piece that may have been Chopin's Op. 18 Waltz. This led to three more encores after the encores, extending the evening's entertainment well past the customary terminal hour.
(I must mention Mr. Trifonov's apparel which was in keeping with our present relationship with his motherland: a black suit, white shirt, skinny black pencil tie, and hair which slung to the music.)
Mr. Fruhbeck and Mr. Trifonov were not the only guest artists: Kelley O'Connor (not in green but wearing an elegant and stylish long black gown with halter top design) beautifully sang the love sick parts of Candelas from El amor brujo by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) whose works Maestro Fruhbeck has recorded in their entirety.
Ms. O'Connor's mezzo-soprano's voice was frequently almost overcome by the sounds of music. Probably because she has appeared with the National Symphony several times, the audience did not respond as enthusiastically as it does to most "newcomers."
Oh, and there was more entertainment: The delicious "Nuages" and "Fetes" from Nocturnes by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) began the evening.
Three long consecutive nights conducting at the Kennedy Center would be demanding tasks for anyone, let alone someone with the history of Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos which includes 2011 Conductor of the Year by Musical America, the Gold Medal awarded by Vienna, "Emeritus Conductor" bestowed by the Spanish National Orchestra, and in the past year alone, he has led orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, San Francisco, Detroit, Saint Louis, Houston, Seattle, among some cities. Not bad for an 80-year-old.
The program repeats tonight.