Snippets of Strauss, Schumann, Wagner, and the lesser-known Miklós Rózsa could be heard in the hall at Strathmore Saturday evening as the musicians of the National Philharmonic Orchestra warmed-up before their performance – another one, yet again, celebrating Leonard Bernstein. However, this time, rather than featuring works of the American musical icon, the program would be a recreation of the concert from 1943 with the New York Philharmonic that thrust Mr. Bernstein’s lauded career into motion.
This was an evening well-done and a welcome variation on the Bernstein tribute concerts that have been in steady supply.
Following a brief welcome from media sponsor Classical WETA, conductor and music director Piotr Gajewski energetically took the podium to initiate the evening with Robert Schumann’s Overture to “Manfred.” Maestro Gajewski’s spirited demeanor elicited a nimble and lively treatment by the orchestra. Strings especially displayed their unison virtuosity in dynamic range.
Next was the Theme, Variations and Finale by Hungarian-American composer Miklós Rózsa, known for his film and television scores of the mid-20th century. Though not from the film genre, this evening’s work was rife with all the hallmarks of the medium – a wide range of moods, inventive textures, passionate climaxes, driving rhythmic patterns and striking contrasts of dynamics and sonorities. The orchestra and conductor’s overt style lent well to these characteristics. Beautiful solo lines from winds and blaring statements from the horns were some of the highlights.
Following intermission, Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote provided an interesting juxtaposition of composers who created such vivid imagery in their music. Compared to the more extroverted and obvious nature of Rózsa, here Strauss shone as the master composer, weaving subtle chromatic melodies together into a web that is entrancing and subtle, yet accessible and depictive enough to accompany any story on screen or stage.
The tone poem features prominently cello and viola soloists in the roles of the title character and sidekick Sancho Panza, respectively. As Don Quixote, Grammy winner Zuill Bailey was as expressive with his facial gestures as with the stylings of his cello playing. His sense of lyricism brought out the intricacies and beauty in Strauss’ writing. Truly beautiful playing, if at times the instrument, dating from 1693, he was playing lacked the volume to compete with the full orchestra. Completely forgivable, given the tenderness achieved in the quieter, more introspective moments.
As sidekick, violist Roberto Díaz was more understated in appearance and demeanor, but not in musical approach. His to-the-point interjections balanced the broader, more contemplative strokes of Don Quixote. The orchestra had plenty of flexing to do as well and at times rivaled Bailey inability to sustain lengthy and animated lines. The only noticeably marred moment of the evening came in the final seconds of the Strauss when challenging chord voicings proved problematic for woodwind intonation.
Even a perfunctory reading of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” can make an orchestra shine, but this was more than just a cursory play-through. Maestro Gajewski’s tempi, though mostly broad, had plenty of variance and spontaneity. The chamber-like sections were spritely and exuberant, while the tutti passages from the orchestra rang with clarity and brilliance. This was an evening well-done and a welcome variation on the Bernstein tribute concerts that have been in steady supply.
Running time: 2 hours including a 20-minute intermission.