Violinist Chee-Yun highlights National Philharmonic performance

Washington Post

By Cecelia H. Porter

A chamber ensemble from the National Philharmonic drew ovations from a full house Saturday night when it played at Strathmore's concert hall in Bethesda. Under conductor Piotr Gajewski, the program, all for string orchestra, was an expectedly winning one, pairing Tchaikovsky's familiar Serenade in C, Op. 48, with Vivaldi's equally popular "Four Seasons," Op. 8, with Korean-born violinist Chee-Yun as the soloist. The National Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, Nurit Bar-Josef, also starred in the Vivaldi, teaming up with Chee-Yun in some fast and furious episodes of virtuoso figuration.

A supremely taxing work for every player, the Vivaldi is really four concertos wrapped into a sequence of movements that pictured landscapes reflecting spring, summer, fall and winter. The composer calibrated timbres and textures to accompany his own descriptive sonnets that speak of Mother Nature's seductive birdcalls, rippling brooks, crashing thunderstorms or even a lazy summer day. (Contrary to traditional commentary, you can't chalk up Vivaldi's fanciful, if naive, reflection of moods as a first example of programmatic music; it has thrived for centuries. And, interestingly, other composers besides Vivaldi have come up with Four Seasons music, including Franz-Joseph Haydn's oratorio of that name and Astor Piazzolla's "Four Seasons" depicting Buenos Aires street scenes popping with tango rhythms.)

Chee-Yun met all the technical demands of this music and then some. At once playful and passionate, her bow was consistently precise even at NASCAR speed. Her tremolos shimmered and tender lyricism pervaded slow movements while she moved seamlessly between rapid-fire shifts as soloist or member of the full orchestra. Gajewski guided the orchestra in an energetic, nuanced partnership with the soloist, deftly coaxing without forcing Vivaldi's relentless underlying beat.

The concert opened with a sometimes amiable, sometimes impassioned performance of the Tchaikovsky Serenade, transporting listeners to a melancholy born of the endless Russian steppes. Strathmore's well-balanced acoustics supported the chamber orchestra's focused, full-bodied sound.

One distraction, however, plagued the evening: disruptive clapping after every one of the movements of both works. A pre-performance announcement could have warded off these interruptions.