A fierce talent with emphasis on “fierce,” Ray Chen gave an aggressive reading of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the NSO. (John Mac/John Mac)
Classical music critic

There’s something to be said for the comfort of familiarity. People who love classical music, after all, fell in love with works decades and centuries old, pieces that continue to have force to the present day. It’s that side of the orchestral literature — the canonical, the bread-and-butter works — that the National Symphony Orchestra celebrates with this week’s program.

Classical music offers great masterworks decades and centuries old, pieces that have withstood the test of time, music that people have listened to over and over again until it’s a part of the fabric of their lives. It offers a canon of such works, a definitive list that aficionados think everyone should know and that remains a point of reference throughout their lives.

The National Symphony Orchestra gave a salute to familiarity this week by placing a timeless playlist in familiar hands: those of its conductor laureate, Christoph Eschenbach, who was for seven years its music director. Eschenbach led a program of Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Thursday night, the German repertory that is among his specialties, and the audience reveled in it.

“Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” the title of the opening piece, set the tone for an evening filled with affectionate warmth. What can be described as a melodious poem by the young Mendelssohn, it was the least-familiar thing on the program, though its warm caressing music makes it sound familiar, sunny, tranquil and propulsive, with lots of sinuous handoffs between the instruments.

Eschenbach conducts more with his heart than his beat, and some of the handoffs were a little murky as a result; but the trumpets, in particular, sounded wonderful as they came in near the end, offering fair wind for the voyage ahead.

Mendelssohn is generally a sunny composer; all of his music has a touch of the eager brilliance of the child prodigy. The violin concerto is one of the best-known and most beloved in the repertory, and it dances with a smile, particularly in the final movement, when the soloist, Ray Chen, beamed along with the music.

Chen’s sound, though, didn’t dance quite as vivaciously as the score promises. There is no denying his fierce talent, but it’s a little too heavy on the “fierce.” There’s a taut aggression to his playing, an edge that sounds almost amplified that sends his low notes echoing out over the orchestra, but it seemed overly strenuous, trying to add blood and guts to a concerto that invites its soloist to trip delicately across the high-wire. Despite the smile, the details of the sprightly final movement scooted away from his fleet fingers. Still, there was flash and virtuosity aplenty on display. His encore, insisted on by the audience, proved a much better fit for his strengths: Paganini’s Caprice No. 21 in A Major, in which his staccato upbowings drew an audible gasp from the audience, with good reason.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is hardly a pendant, more a continuation of this particular conversation, a further set of evocative tableaux that was like more vistas on the voyage that Mendelssohn had launched. Eschenbach dove into it with palpable warmth, bringing out the lower and middle voices, as is his wont, until the main lines of the opening movement were nearly submerged, giving a fresh sound to the familiar. His genuine love of the music sounded out in the second movement, with its gently burbling brook. This is real German Beethoven, offered by and to people who know it well, with mutual affection on all sides.

The program repeats Friday and Saturday evenings.