The Music Center at Strathmore is not without its quirks, and some of these were apparent Saturday night, when the National Philharmonic played its inaugural concert in the brand-new auditorium, under the direction of Piotr Gajewski.
The sound that greets a spectator on the ground floor is gorgeous and full, but the balcony just to the right of the stage (where I sat on Saturday) seems to lie in a curious dead spot, where bass notes sound both distant and muddled and some sections of the orchestra can barely be heard at all. There is always an acoustic dichotomy between the best and the worst seats in any house (the old Metropolitan Opera in New York was famous for the way the most glowing and immediate sound was lavished on those who held the cheapest tickets, way up near the ceiling, where patrons could barely see the stage). But this schism is rarely so profound as it would seem to be at Strathmore.
John Alger was a soloist Saturday for the Strathmore Center debut of the National Philharmonic.
Much tinkering can yet be done -- with its canopies and reflecting panels, Strathmore has the equivalent of "modular" acoustics, theoretically capable of eternal variation. Still, for the moment at least, visitors are advised to sit downstairs. Of course, you may not have much choice in the matter, as Strathmore is selling every seat in the house, even for concerts that aren't really very good.
Despite the ambitious name (which was adopted in 2003), the National Philharmonic is essentially a decent regional orchestra -- Rockville's answer to the ensembles from Arlington, Alexandria and other Washington suburbs -- and it has the usual strengths and weaknesses of such groups. The first-chair players were polished and adept; the strings sounded eager but not always fully blended; the brass and winds were unreliable but capable of rising to an occasion; the percussion rang out gleefully whenever possible. This was my first experience with the Philharmonic but it was obvious that, under the right circumstances, it must be capable of putting on a exciting show.
Unfortunately, Saturday's circumstances weren't quite right. The program began with a "Strathmore Overture" by the late Andreas Makris -- a flashy, agreeable series of musical non sequiturs created specifically for this occasion that the composer did not live to hear (he died on Feb. 3). Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" -- a musical answer to Mount Rushmore and drearily sanctimonious in the best of times -- was sorely underrehearsed, and the crude amplification accorded the speaking voice of Cokie Roberts, who was the evening's soloist, only exacerbated the situation. No fault of Roberts but -- from where I was sitting, at least -- she sounded like nothing so much as one of those tinny, blasting recorded announcements warning you that your car will be towed if you leave it in front of an airport.
The evening's biggest disappointment was the cursory, "just the facts" reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 that took up the second half of the program. Gajewski pushed his way through it as if it were no more complicated than a folk song -- quickly, steadily, with a minimum of nuance and what seemed a pronounced impatience with rests, as though they were a string of stoplights he had hoped to avoid.
Curiously, the soloists -- soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, mezzo-soprano Patricia Miller, tenor John Aler and bass Kevin Deas -- were brought onto the stage not at the end of the second movement (as is customary) but at the end of the third, necessitating a long pause that handily blunted the effect of the cataclysmic dissonance that opens the finale. Still, this was the best prepared of the four movements; if the "Ode to Joy" seemed rather bumptious, there was some exciting collective singing from the chorus (prepared by Stan Engebretson) and the soloists, who strained purposefully to do justice to Beethoven's stratospheric writing for voice. Deas was especially fine, singing the long, florid introductory passage for bass with an ease and freedom that was too often lacking in the rest of the performance.