The Underserved Viola: Victoria Chiang, Nurit Bar-Josef, and the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore, January 5, 2013

On a good day, the National Philharmonic, Montgomery County’s most aspirationally named symphony orchestra, can sound worthy of the National Symphony-esque prices it charges for its concerts in the Music Center at Strathmore. On a bad day, the Nat Phil sounds like it did on Saturday, in its “Voice of the Viola” concert.

Under Music Director Piotr Gajewski, the Philharmonians sounded best in Felix Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 9 (the “Swiss,” although it does not sound particularly neutral or watch-like). This work dates from the composer’s  prodigy years, and, like many young people throughout history, the teenager overestimated the interest of certain elements of his material, particularly in the far-too-lengthy finale. Yet mostly this is a tune machine that never stops producing, and Mendelssohn treats those tunes inventively to boot. Here the National Philharmonic’s strings had a glossy, rich tone and showed a clear enthusiasm for the material, though the performance overall lacked the zippy quality that comes with more precise ensemble.

Victoria Chiang, viola master. From her website. 2012 by Rachel Boer Photography.

Victoria Chiang, viola master. From her website. 2012 by Rachel Boer Photography.

The Mendelssohn showed its devotion to the viola mainly through having two viola desks. (Much credit to Gajewski for explaining the furniture rearranging before it happened so the audience would know why everything sounded different.) Victoria Chiang, coordinator of the viola department at the Peabody School, served as the soloist in two concerti that bookended the Mendelssohn. She played the concert opener, Georg Philip Telemann’s Concerto in G major (famous from classical drive-time morning radio), with elan and imagination. The orchestra behind her sounded plodding, lacking her sharp attack and burdened by pedestrian continuo work.

Nurit Bar-Josef, concertmaster of the National Symphony and a last-minute replacement for the ailing violinist Stefan Jackiw, joined Chiang for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante. Throughout, Bar-Josef and Chiang balanced their intertwining lines, playing with sweet tone and Classical grace; among many high points, their closing passage in the second movement was a particular treat, as it could hardly fail to be in such sensitive hands. Meanwhile, the orchestra bleated out most of what it was doing. The contrast was stark, and the result was unsatisfying.

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