If a concerto with one soloist is great, a concerto with three soloists should be three times as good -- right? Wrong. Ludwig van Beethoven proved that in 1804 when he composed his Concerto in C for violin, cello, piano and orchestra, and the National Symphony proved it again on Saturday night in a skilled, well-meaning and ultimately unsuccessful performance of the same concerto.
The demonstration was aided by guest conductor Myung-Whun Chung and the Kaplan-Carr-Golub Trio, but ultimately the responsibility has to be put on old Beethoven himself. Fortunately for his reputation (not to mention that of conductor Chung, who made his debut with the orchestra last weekend), the program also included two of Beethoven's top hits -- the third "Leonora" Overture and the Seventh Symphony, both of which received smashing performances.
Chung's compact, muscular body tends toward sweeping gestures, and sometimes the music comes out with a comparably sweeping effect -- for example, in the helter-skelter last movement of the Seventh Symphony. His tempos were sometimes a bit fast, as one expects of conductors under 30, but not unreasonably so. He hurried the pace slightly in the slow movement and scherzo of the Seventh, but the pace was beautiful in the slow introduction to the overture, presenting the music in finely poised, long-breathed phrases that set the stage well for the later dramatic developments.
In both purely orchestral works, Chung showed a good sense of dynamic and dramatic contrasts, an aptitude for subtle variations of pace within a basically consistent pulse, and a fine ear for sonic balances. The whole orchestra played particularly well for him, with some specially fine work from the hard-working brass and tympani. Ensemble was not razor-sharp at the beginning of the symphony's first movement, but it improved rapidly. Raw energy matters more than polish in this music, and that was abundant in Chung's rhythmically compelling performance. The slow movement was eloquent, the scherzo reminiscent of Toscanini's treatment -- chiefly attuned to dramatic statement but not unaware of the music's rough-hewn wit.
As for the Triple Concerto, it seems to have trouble deciding whether it is orchestral or chamber music and ends up as an unsatisfactory compromise between the two. Sometimes, the three soloists act like a piano trio that has somehow found itself on stage with an orchestra, and all parties seem unsure of exactly what to do in the situation. Occasionally, the members of the trio become individual concerto soloists while their partners look on, and at these moments violinist Mark Kaplan, cellist Colin Carr and pianist David Golub played proficiently but not spectacularly. They looked as though they would have been more at ease playing the "Archduke" Trio in a somewhat more intimate hall, and I must say I would rather hear them doing that.