The performance of Beethoven's "Egmont" overture by the National Philharmonic under music director Piotr Gajewski, at its season-opening concert at Strathmore on Saturday, revealed a second-tier orchestra in first-rate shape. If their playing sounded somewhat cautious, and if winds and brass lacked that last ounce of personality you find in upper-echelon ensembles, their discipline, tight execution and elegant string tone would be the envy of any regional orchestra.
The Beethoven was followed by a pair of heavy-hitting concertos, played by a pair of heavy-hitting soloists. It's no news to report that Sarah Chang played the heck out of the Bruch Violin Concerto No 1; Chang tends to play the heck out of everything. Put a juicy concerto in front of her, and she'll squeeze 20 percent more juice out of it, and add extra pulp. Chang has received occasional criticism about her extroverted interpretations and showboating stage presence. But as long as that fearless technique is intact (and it certainly was Saturday), it's possible to accept the sometimes trenchant tone and overly febrile vibrato — and even overlook the self-conducting, the femme fatale poses during rests and the dramatic backward lunges on sustained high notes. It's all part of the Chang Show, and it's tremendous fun, provided you're not in the market for soul and nuance.
As it happens, soul and nuance are what cellist Zuill Bailey excels in. He played Dvorak's Cello Concerto on Saturday, digging into the slow movement with luscious tone and spinning long, ardent lines that captured all the inwardness and rhapsody Dvorak wrote into the score. And that sensitivity didn't preclude a joyous virtuosity in the outer movements that was just as dazzling as Chang's, and with less grandstanding. Both soloists had the goods. Bailey's goods were, perhaps, just a little bit better.