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Sarah Chang and National Philharmonic shine in thoughtful and passionate program

The National Philharmonic’s program at Strathmore on Saturday began with melancholy and ended with joy — Richard Strauss’s elegiac “Metamorphosen” in the first half and the four concertos of Vivaldi’s effervescent “The Four Seasons” in the second.

Violinist Sarah Chang was the soloist in the Vivaldi, and pity the poor orchestral violin section that had to keep up with her as she tore through Vivaldi’s runs and arpeggios without breaking a sweat. Her touch was light, packed with energy and shaped with just enough rhythmic bend and sway to keep from sounding metronomic — and to keep the orchestra just a little off balance. Conductor Piotr Gajewski and his reduced-size string orchestra, maybe one rehearsal short of full agreement, sounded tentative in this company, which didn’t seem to faze Chang. She knew just how she wanted the music to go, and that’s how she played it. She danced with it, and the spirit of Vivaldi seemed to dance with her.

In true Strauss fashion, “Metamorphosen” is a vast monument to something. Some historians say it memorializes the destruction of Munich in World War II; others that it was Beethoven and his disavowal of Napoleon — or maybe both — that was in Strauss’s mind. In any case, Strauss uses the iambic descending scale from the second-movement funeral march of Beethoven’s Third Symphony and four other melodic fragments to fashion a huge arch that opens in quiet grief, builds to major chest-beating and ends quietly.

Strauss does all this with (for him) uncommon economy of both musical material and instrumental forces. It is scored for 23 solo strings, and the National Philharmonic turned in a performance that was thoughtful and passionate. There were times near the beginning when one or another of the themes struggled to be heard, and there was some disagreement about how to weight the iambic rhythm that pervaded the textures, but the overall effect was solemn and, at times, exalted.

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

Sarah Chang. (Colin Bell)
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