Monday, February 4, 2008

National Philharmonic

Hasn't conductor Piotr Gajewski got any more interesting ideas? It's a question you might have asked when contemplating the program -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and "Emperor" Concerto -- that Gajewski and his National Philharmonic brought to the Music Center at Strathmore this past weekend. Well, the answer is yes -- and this concert was it.

First of all, the soloist in the concerto was Leon Fleisher, resoundingly back in the land of two-handed pianists (his right hand was out of commission for many years), and Fleisher has never, in my memory, offered a routine reading of anything. And second was the return-to-its-roots performance of the Fifth, whipped along at metronome markings (Beethoven's own) that transformed a portentous fate into an optimistic and somewhat impatient voice of hope and light.

On Saturday night, Fleisher's focus was on the inevitability of the beat and the power and excitement that rhythmic integrity can create. The poetry (felt in abundance) resided in transparent textures, in the enormous dynamic range that Fleisher has at his command and in an artistic imagination that can wring joy from the jaws of anticipation. The orchestra, not always able to match either Fleisher's intensity or his rhythmic poise, played the role of an alert and willing accompanist, rather than a collaborator.

The reading of the Fifth was just plain fun. Up front, Gajewski talked a little about what the orchestra was about to do (play it considerably faster and less pompously than has become the norm) and the orchestra demonstrated what this would mean -- shorter pauses after each of the opening four-note pronouncements, a lighter touch in the long lines of the second movement, and so forth. And, indeed, this was a reading that was full of light and dancing in passages that often seem ponderous. The basses rose to the occasion in their quick third-movement lines and the whole orchestra seemed on its toes throughout. Balances were splendid and the coordination was finely tuned.

The orchestra warmed up for all this with "Egmont" Overture, the only routine performance in a surprisingly unusual evening.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Concerto Copenhagen

The Danish baroque band Concerto Copenhagen brought one of its tried and true programs to the Library of Congress on Friday. The lineup, including works by Handel, J.S. Bach and their Swedish contemporary Johan Roman, was one the group has been trotting out for at least four years.

It's not exactly fresh programming, but that doesn't mean this band plays it safe. CoCo (its nickname) is led by keyboardist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, who conducts -- and how -- like a mad scientist at the controls. With feral gesticulations, Mortensen kept one hand on the harpsichord and sculpted sound with the other, as if squeezing clay. He shot humorous, piercing looks at his players. In return, the 15-member group performed brilliantly, possessed with the sheer joy of making music.

There were no wheezing winds or vinegary strings in this original-instruments band. CoCo's sound was warm yet vibrant, including uncommonly dramatic shifts in volume. In Bach's Harpsichord Concerto in D, the strings produced a rich, gravelly texture to back up Mortensen's extroverted playing. He pushed and pulled the Adagio's melody, transforming it into a personal lament.

Roman's music remains unjustly neglected. His Oboe d'Amore Concerto, from around 1730, sports catchy tunes and fresh harmonies, sounding a half-century ahead of its time. Guest oboist Frank de Bruine navigated the winding runs effortlessly, launching silken tones from thin air.

Bach's and Roman's music sparkled, but Handel's two concerti grossi -- Op. 6, No. 5, and Op. 3, No. 4 -- seemed to illuminate the entire hall. The music possesses an indescribable vitality. Melodies boomeranged between groups of instruments, complementing Handel's heady mix of harmony and rhythm. CoCo captured it all in buoyant, transparent performances.

-- Tom Huizenga

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