With pomp and gratitude, a revived National Philharmonic opens with Beethoven

Sun Sep 22, 2019 at 1:44 pm
By Matthew Guerrieri
The Eroica Trio performed Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto with the National Philharmonic Saturday night.

After the National Philharmonic’s dramatic summer—an abrupt demise, an abrupt resurrection—the orchestra opened its season on Saturday at the Strathmore Music Center with a mostly-Beethoven program. While Beethoven’s music hardly lacks for potential drama of its own, it is, by now, also musical comfort food, and that seemed to be the spirit in which it was offered and received: a noble sigh of relief that music was still being made.

Before the music, though, the summer’s upheavals were necessarily acknowledged. New board chair Harris Miller introduced new orchestra president (and section violist) Jim Kelly, whose thank-you’s neatly outlined the requisite constituencies of the modern American orchestra: donors, state officials, county officials, venue administration, former orchestra administration—and even Kelly’s mom. In a slightly disquieting bit of theater, Kelly had the orchestra stand to acknowledge a particularly generous anonymous donor who was presumably among the audience. Marking musician solidarity, Jonathan Carney, concertmaster for the Baltimore Symphony took the stage as guest concertmaster. 

Montgomery Country council member Tom Hucker then mounted the podium to lead the Star-Spangled Banner (credited, in the program, to lyricist Francis Scott Key rather than composer John Stafford Smith). One suspects the ensemble took as many cues from Carney’s emphatic bowing, but Hucker’s idiosyncratic stick technique, resembling the broad gestures of an airport tarmac marshal, might clarify the beat of more than a couple professionals.

After all that, it was time for the program proper, and Beethoven’s Op. 56 Triple Concerto, with the Eroica Trio. 

Pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Sara Perkins, and cellist Sara Sant’Ambroglio have been playing together—and playing this piece—for decades; while the trio and orchestra were not immediately in sync (especially in intonation), the camaraderie among the soloists was easy, immediate, and unusually apparent: these are musicians who clearly love their job. Conductor Piotr Gajewski led stately accompaniment, more polished than penetrating, broad outlines filled in with downy sound. 

The work compounds the usual concerto competition between soloist and orchestra with another contest between styles of music-making: orchestral parade-ground lockstep versus chamber-music serendipity and intimacy. If this rendition never quite squared that circle—shifts of scale from trio to orchestra were always a bit too palpable—when the music settled into chamber-sized dimensions, the playing was seriously fine. 

The central Largo movement was serenely expressive, and the trio’s clairvoyant coordination engineered some gregarious Slavic flair in the polonaise finale. Not the least pleasure was being reminded of Beethoven’s capacity for suavity, the lapidary gleam that writing for piano trio seemed to bring to the fore of his music. The trio’s encore, Astor Piazzolla’s brooding, romantic Oblivion, played to their strengths: elegant sound and telepathic sense of mood.

Beethoven’s own “Eroica,” the Third Symphony, completed the evening, in a reading of distinguished posture. (The work’s memorial reputation was also sustained with Gajewski dedicating the performance to the late Cokie Roberts, who appeared on the ensemble’s very first concert.) Gajewski’s less-is-more style—the opening movement was conducted almost entirely in one-beat-per-bar churns, even amid syncopations and polyrhythms—emphasized sonic warmth and steadiness, occasionally over Beethoven’s provocations: the thematic disintegration at the end of the famous funeral march, for instance, landed more prosaically than the composer surely intended. The Scherzo was smooth and streamlined, the finale an orderly charge.

The image that came to mind was that of a luxury car: potential under-the-hood power tempered by cruise control and a cushioned ride. And, surely, there are worse ways of experiencing the repertoire than to be comfortably and confidently driven past recognized signposts. One might have wished for more expressive friction, more sharp turns and bumps in the road. But, then again, maybe the National Philharmonic has had enough of those for now.

The National Philharmonic presents “The Music of ABBA” November 2 at the Strathmore Music Center. nationalphilharmonic.org

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