Fall Season: National Philharmonic’s 10th year at Strathmore

2014-2015 Season boasts some interesting offerings, ranging from popular Gershwin favorites to a rarely-heard Wagner opera and almost never-heard Chopin art songs.

Piotr Gajewski.
Piotr Gajewski, music director of the National Philharmonic. (Credit: Josh Cogan)

NORTH BETHESDA, Md., April 9, 2015 – The National Philharmonic announced its 2015-2016 schedule Tuesday. Under the musical direction of Piotr Gajewski, the orchestra, based at North Bethesda’s Music Center at Strathmore, boasts familiar and unusual offerings in the upcoming season. The new season’s concert menu ranges from popular Gershwin favorites to a rarely heard Wagner opera and an offering of almost never heard Chopin art songs.

According to the Philharmonic’s official press release, the ensemble’s new season

“…kicks off in mid-September with American 20th-century masterpieces: Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Gershwin’s American in Paris and Concerto in F with pianist Thomas Pandolfi, a leading interpreter of the works of Gershwin. Tenor Issachah Savage, who recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut, sings the title role in the powerful concert opera Rienzi by Wagner. Pianist Brian Ganz, who is halfway through his journey to perform all of Chopin’s works, will be joined by Polish soprano Iwona Sobtka in an evening dedicated to the rarely performed songs of Chopin. Other soloists returning this season include violinist Chee-Yun performing Mozart’s witty Violin Concerto No. 4, cellist Zuill Bailey playing two Vivaldi concertos and soprano Danielle Talamantes featured in Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. In addition, National Philharmonic concertmaster Colin Sorgi will play Bach’s brilliant Violin Concerto No. 2 and Mr. Ganz will perform Mozart’s gorgeous Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor.”

Also on tap: Handel’s “Messiah,” Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” Haydn’s magnificent “Lord Nelson Mass,” Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (Pathétique) and “Serenade for Strings,” Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (Haffner), Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” and a Christmas season performance of Handel’s timeless “Messiah,” also featuring the National Philharmonic Chorale.

One of the more unusual concerts of the season will be the Philharmonic’s Oct. 3 concert presentation of Richard Wagner’s early (and somewhat forgotten) opera, “Rienzi,” a rousing, song-filled, historically based work that presents this complex composer in a way you may never have imagined him before.

The cast for “Rienzi” includes tenor Issachah Savage in the title role and also features mezzo Mary Ann Stewart, soprano Jennifer Wilson, bass Kevin Thompson, baritone Jason Stearns, tenor Robert Baker and bass-baritone Stephen Bryant. The soloists will be joined by the Washington Men’s Camerata, and the combined vocal and orchestral forces will be conducted by Maestro Gajewski.

Of particular interest to this reviewer is the unusual and intimate Chopin recital scheduled just after the turn of the New Year on Jan. 9, 2016. Entitled “Bel Canto of the Piano,” part of this program is devoted to a selection of Chopin’s art songs, the existence of which many fans of Poland’s greatest composer may not be aware.

Composed almost at random throughout much of his professional life and set to the words of Polish poets of his time, Chopin’s songs are intensely national in character and were likely meant, for the most part, to be performed for friends or at intimate soirées. They remained largely unknown and, in accordance with the wishes of the composer, unpublished, becoming generally accessible only after his tragic death from consumption not long before his 40th birthday.

One set of seven songs eventually gained some currency due to Liszt’s arrangements (and, of course, embellishments) of them for the piano alone. But hearing any of these songs in their original form is something rarely encountered, at least in the U.S.

Pianist Brian Ganz will perform a selection of Chopin’s works that demonstrate how he adapted the bel canto singing style of his favorite opera composers—particularly Bellini—to his works for solo piano. But Ganz will also accompany Polish soprano Iwona Sobotka—the Grand Prix winner of the 2004 Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition—in a selection of Chopin’s songs.

The concert will conclude with a performance of the composer’s rousing four-movement Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 whose quite third movement Largo is another fine example of Chopin’s bel canto music for the keyboard.

Free pre-concert lectures will be available prior to each National Philharmonic event—a big plus for the above-referenced concerts given their range of unfamiliar musical territory—but useful for all who would enjoy knowing a little bit more about what they’re going to hear.

The orchestra emphasizes one special, traditional feature that’s sure to appeal to families who’d like their kids to have at least a passing familiarity with real music:

“All young people age 7 to 17 attend National Philharmonic concerts free of charge through its unique ALL KIDS, ALL FREE, ALL THE TIME program.”

The Philharmonic is once again offering patrons “a flexible custom series” of concerts, a feature that “allows subscribers to create their own packages and receive discounts of up to 25 percent on tickets, with the largest discounts provided to those who purchase seven or more concerts.”

Season and subscription tickets can be reserved by calling 301-581-5100 or visiting the National Philharmonic’s website. Tickets for individual concerts (i.e., tickets that are not part of a package) will go on sale Aug. 15.

Suburban Maryland’s beautiful Music Center at Strathmore is located at 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md., 20852. The Metro is located right across the street, and the Metro garage makes free parking available for most Strathmore events.

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