Music Review: National Philharmonic at Strathmore

Violinist Soovin Kim was soloist on Saint-Saëns's Rondo Capriccioso.
Violinist Soovin Kim was soloist on Saint-Saëns's Rondo Capriccioso. (By Woo-ryong Chai)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

The National Philharmonic ended its season at Strathmore on Saturday night with as big a bang as a moderately sized orchestra could muster. It went out with Mahler's First, with tangles of trumpet, crashes of timpani, fortississimo sawing from the strings, and a general sense of gusto emanating from the conductor, Piotr Gajewski, that set the tone for a very enjoyable performance.

There were other things on the program, of course. The evening opened with the overture to Wagner's "Meistersinger," sounding valiant if a little muddy. The National Philharmonic's strings appeared in this concert oddly muffled, and since the orchestra sits on risers, the brass boomed out from behind, creating some imbalance.

And there were two bonbons: Dvorak's Romance in F Minor and the Saint-Saëns Rondo Capriccioso, that noble warhorse, played by the violinist Soovin Kim. It was not the ideal pairing of soloist and work. Kim has a sweet and singing tone, but a delicacy or discretion in his approach that came across a little muted in two pieces that call for swaggering showmanship. He did, however, look and sound as if he were enjoying himself, which counts for a great deal; he was able to conquer the technical hurdles of the Saint-Saëns, if not absolutely to master them, with some slightly shaky moments in intonation and in the finger-twisting fireworks that close out the work.

Such light works used to be included on programs more often than they are now, and when they appear today, they are often dismissed as unserious. On Saturday, I thought that this had a lot to do with the way such pieces are approached. There was a restraint to the performance of the two violin pieces: the strings opening the Dvorak with a delicacy that matched Kim's own; Gajewski cannily restraining the ensemble in the Saint-Saëns so as not to drown out the soloist. But altogether there was a bit too much artistry and good taste in these pieces, and not enough vulgarity. By contrast, there was plenty of lustiness in Gajewski's approach to the Mahler, and it made the performance come alive in a way that the preceding pieces had not.

Gajewski showed himself to be a likable conductor with a generally good sense of the music. But there was no question that he came to the Mahler with a sense of anticipation and enjoyment that had been missing before, as if he were rolling up his sleeves and saying, now comes the fun part. The opening notes, in which the whole huge symphony starts to rise out of a misty dream, were by far the best that had been heard on the program to that point. The mists were punctured by cuckoo calls and harp notes that pinged like bullets, and then after a long period of building, the whole anxious pile of sound suddenly slid into the warmth of a new theme with a palpable sense of release.

Gajewski kept his focus and his acute sense of the music's changing moods -- like the rustic schmalziness of the Scherzo -- all the way to the fourth movement, which sagged. The orchestra's limitations also interfered with the music's vision at this point: There was no way to get a sound quite as big or expansive as Gajewski seemed to want it. However, an advantage to the slightly smaller scale was that the tiny flickers of Beethoven influence shooting through the score came out in a way I hadn't heard before -- down to the two closing chords that finished the whole thing off.

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