NSO musicians return to the Kennedy Center stage, and bring a welcome lightness

It was actually the audience who took the stage, each of us proceeding unushered and freshly temperature-checked to our individual seats, evenly spread across its depths in generously measured rows.

The players, meanwhile — a wind quintet (unmasked, but regularly tested) and a string quartet (masked) — filed in from an auditorium entrance and took to a large platform constructed at the front of the stage and framed by the empty house and its crimson rows. It was a reversal that highlighted our own role as an audience in performing the normal, however improvised.

The center’s On Stage at the Opera House series of live concerts (some of which will be made available for on-demand viewing) officially kicked off Sept. 26 with an equally cautious cabaret-style performance from Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams. And forthcoming chamber installments will present the Jazz Gallery All-Stars (Oct. 8), a combined program of the Dover Quartet and the Escher Quartet (Oct. 20), and another batch of NSO musicians playing works by Saint-Saëns, Bach, Donizetti, Fauré and others (Oct. 30).

But this first reappearance felt mission-oriented — and not just to give these NSO players a reprieve from porch concerts and Zoom recitals. Ample was the light and few were the dark passages in a program of vivacious chamber works.

An oft-heard staple of the wind quintet canon — Jacques Ibert’s “Trois Pièces Brèves” — opened the evening. A witty, nimble work in three movements, it was composed by Ibert in 1930 — a year after his grander “Divertissement.” Well-worn as it may be (bassoonist Sue Heineman has been playing it since junior high), its lightness still feels like a feat to attempt, let alone achieve. Aaron Goldman’s flute and Lin Ma’s clarinet gave it a fresh polish, especially through its winding, entrancing andante.

This was paired with Giuseppe Maria Cambini’s seldom-heard 1802 Wind Quintet No. 3 in F, which (especially in its second movement) delivered the high drama promised in oboist Nicholas Stovall’s opening remarks, and seldom betrayed the fact that the players had just picked it up last week.

A quick stage sweep and personnel change (marked by an audible woohoo! from the “backstage”) brought out the quartet of violinists Alexandra Osborne and Joel Fuller, violist Mahoko Eguchi and cellist Rachel Young, who opened with a lively take on Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 1. Osborne led the way with sure, sharp playing that had me sketching a little symbol for fire in my notebook.

But the highlight, anchor and spiritual emblem of the evening was its closer, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F, Op. 135 — the composer’s last major work, written in 1826, a year before his death.

The novelist Milan Kundera was fascinated with this quartet’s play with lightness and weight, employing it as a model of sorts for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and Friday night’s performance was no less inspired by this deft balance (or blur) of opposing forces — from its conversational opening to its restless Vivace movement (a scherzo gone wild), through a Lento so delicate it barely registered above the ventilation.

And in its final aching movement, as written into the score itself, an exchange as implicit in the syllables of the music as it was in the air of the evening: “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) “Es muss sein!” (It must be!) — itself, an affirmative little inversion. Against acoustical odds, the quartet managed to set free the unlikely joy of the piece — not to mention the audience.

Of course, there’s a reason, beyond the comfy seats, that concert halls are arranged the way they are. More than once, the vacant space swallowed the lows (Heineman’s bassoon and Abel Pereira’s horn, despite their clear sense of direction, got here and there lost among the rows), and technological accommodations for such things sometimes backfired (Young had to soldier through some feedback). Add that, between pieces, it felt a little sad to hear our paltry applause scatter into the flies overhead — though it’s important to note that no one, myself included, seemed too bothered.

The simple state (and complex project) of being there was worth any weirdnesses weathered, and each precaution arranged and note sounded felt in service of inching the lot of us back toward normal.

For an hour or so, everything felt right side up.

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