Even pared down to chamber proportions, the National Philharmonic strings can muster impressive warmth and breadth. Their program at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, on Saturday opened with Sibelius’s three-movement suite, “Rakastava” (“The Lover”), and ended with the Tchaikovsky Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 48. In both, a cello section of just four players produced impassioned expanses of gorgeous color while the upper strings, sounding clean and transparent, floated above them. Piotr Gajewski’s conducting style encourages this. He rarely uses a baton, leading instead in generalized sweeps that outline large phrases and dynamics that pretty much leave the details to the players.
The Sibelius piece, with its bleak open textures and magical moments of quiet, scampering activity that accompanied the second movement, “Lover’s Path,” was a gentle narration of a story told in the colors of Nordic lore. The Tchaikovsky work, by contrast, was urgent and lusty, and the orchestra did both well.
Nestled between these two was the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218, with Chee-Yun as soloist. She plays a Stradivarius on loan, and the two are a good pair. She has a splendid bow-arm and great dramatic instincts, and the instrument sings for her with that ineffable Strad sweetness. The orchestra, though, with pairs of oboes and French horns added to the strings, stuck with its more generalized ways, never quite matching the violin’s clarity or incisiveness.
Chee-Yun tore through her pre-intermission encore, the Fritz Kreisler “Recitativo and Scherzo,” with joyful abandon, eliciting an inevitable standing ovation.