Tchaikovsky Without the Hand-Wringing

Monday, May 22, 2006

The National Philharmonic goes from strength to strength. On Saturday at Strathmore Hall, Music Director Piotr Gajewski conducted a program of Tchaikovsky warhorses that boasted secure ensemble and honed, emotionally committed playing. Gajewski is something of a classicist when it comes to Tchaikovsky, choosing not to overplay the composer's theatricality or overindulge his sentimental streak. That's not to say there was any lack of drama in the "Marche Slave" or in the stirring Fifth Symphony. The big moments registered with requisite impact in both works, but they never ballooned out of proportion in readings that emphasized clarity of musical argument above all.

Cellist Carter Brey was very much in Gajewski's mold, phrasing the solo part in Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations" in a natural, almost conversational tone. His lean, handsome timbre and the elegance and gentle swagger he brought to the arching melodic lines kept the piece buoyant. The approach was miles away from virtuoso grandstanding, and both conductor and orchestra gave lithe, like-minded support, emphasizing the score's color and teasing nuance.

Sure, the Philharmonic's string tone could be weightier, its wind solos could evince more personality, its phrasing could breathe more freely. But these are things that can be fixed over time. Any small American city would welcome this ensemble as its first-tier orchestra. The Washington-Baltimore area is lucky to have it.

-- Joe Banno

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