At a time when a lot of orchestras are thumping their chests by airing new pieces in almost every program, it takes courage to do what the National Philharmonic’s excellent conductor, Piotr Gajewski, has chosen to do this year, which is to devise a season that celebrates the 19th-century greats — Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Chopin — with a little Bach, Handel and Vivaldi thrown in. And, as if to further affirm this choice, the orchestra opened its season at Strathmore on Saturday with two of Beethoven’s most iconic works, the Fifth Symphony and the Violin Concerto.
The concerto’s first movement seemed to suffer some from opening-night jitters — tentative violin ensemble and some mid-flight balance adjustments — but soloist Soovin Kim floated serenely above this, playing with a sweetness that held a hint of the muscular and an immaculate clarity that never seemed precious. Gajewski has always been a sympathetic partner and by the second movement, he had his forces more in sync.
At a concert seven years ago, Gajewski tore through the Fifth Symphony at a speed and intensity that was hair-raising, but this one was a much mellower reading. Its two opening shots of triplets still tripped over each other’s heels in their rush to be emphatic, but Gajewski tempered Beethoven’s first- and fourth-movement passion with a second movement of leisurely lyricism that showcased one of the orchestra’s foremost strengths — its lower strings (particularly its viola section) — and a third movement that uncoiled to a light dance with irresistible momentum. The violins found their footing in the symphony, but the horns struggled throughout the evening.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.