Earlier this summer, the music almost died. Orchestral music, that is.
Montgomery County’s only professional orchestra – the National Philharmonic Orchestra — was in dire straits with mounting debt of more than $100,000. In mid-July, the announcement that it would shut down left more than 100 musicians without a regular gig to play the great classical repertoire. The unionized members of the orchestra rallied. A new executive leader, businessman and violist Jim Kelly, stepped into the fray and helped put the group on solid financial footing by raising more than $300,000, while the board raised another $200,000. The NPO can now pay down the debt and stabilize for the future.
On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 21 and 22, the National Philharmonic will play again. Under the baton of Maestro Piotr Gajewski, the resuscitated orchestra opens its 2019-20 season at its home at The Music Center at Strathmore with a blast: Beethoven’s biggest, boldest work – Symphony No. 3, the Eroica symphony. “It’s arguably one of the best symphonies ever composed and it took music in a different direction, away from the classical aesthetic of Mozart and Haydn and into what turned out to be the Romantic period,” explained Gajewski, the orchestra’s founder.
The long-time Rockville resident wanted to kick off this new season with a self-assured program and Beethoven’s Eroica fit the bill. The symphony, twice as long as any work Mozart composed, was revolutionary, audacious even, at its premiere in 1805, as it broke from classical tradition and leaned into Romantic ideas.
And there’s no better year to return to Beethoven than this one. Around the world, orchestras will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the German composer’s birth throughout the 2019-20 season. In fact, Gajewski bookends the NPO’s 11-concert season with “Beethoven: Eroica” opening the season and “Missa Solemnis,” accompanied by the National Philharmonic Chorale, closing it.
“Eroica,” with its allusions to grandeur and death, was originally meant to be named in honor of Napoleon, whose sweeping military campaigns changed the face of Europe, but when Beethoven heard Bonaparte declared emperor, a furious Beethoven ripped through the Bonaparte name on the title page. Thus, the composer named the piece “Eroica” for its heroic scope instead of the forceful leader he came to despise.
A Catholic mass, “Missa Solemnis” is monumental in its textural richness and operatic intensity. Featuring allusions to past masters – think Bach and Handel’s “Messiah” – the grand and grandiose composition is not often performed although Beethoven considered it his best work.
Completing the season opener is the composer’s “Triple Concerto,” a work that Gajewski noted, “is unique in the repertoire.” The concerto is for three instruments that are typically associated with a regular chamber music ensemble — piano, violin and cello. “The interesting thing about those two pieces,” he said, “is that they were composed essentially simultaneously. The ‘Eroica Symphony’ is opus 55 and the “Triple Concerto” is opus 56.”
For the “Eroica Symphony,” Beethoven seemed preoccupied with the number three, connecting it to the “Triple Concerto.” Gajewski noted, “It’s his third symphony, of course. And the orchestration is a little bit odd — it includes three horns, and usually horns were included in pairs of two or four horns, but never an odd number.” He added, “The key of the symphony is E flat — a key that has three flats. And, of course, simultaneously he was composing the “Triple Concerto” for three solo instruments.”
Joining the NPO for the “Triple Concerto” is the fortuitously named Eroica Trio, founded in 1986 after the three women met as young teens at music camp and music school. Erika Nickrenz (piano), Sara Parkins (violin) and Sara Sant’Ambrogio (cello), are known for their virtuosic yet elegant playing. They perform the Beethoven “Triple Concerto” more frequently than any other trio in the world.
Gajewski shaped the rest of the season to reach a broad range of musical tastes. For classical music lovers, in January there’s Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony” with soloist Orli Shaham playing Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor,” featuring Beethoven cadenzas and in March, his “Requiem.” Local favorite Brian Ganz returns in February for year 10 of his quest to perform the complete works of Chopin.
For those who want something literary, the April program, “Music and Prose,” features works inspired by literary greats including an orchestral premiere based on T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Michael Daugherty’s “Tales of Hemingway” and the overture to “The School for Scandal.” Film fans will be intrigued by Richard Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” a work composed to accompany the classic 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which will be screened simultaneously.
December offerings include Holiday Singin’ Pops featuring the chorale and Broadway stars singing festive seasonal standards and show tunes. Another holiday must, Dec. 21 and 22, is the beloved Hallelujah chorus when the chorale sings Handel’s “Messiah.”
And while Gajewski won’t predict if there will be dancing in the aisles at Strathmore, November brings a Swedish invasion of sorts when an ABBA tribute band joins the orchestra to play some of the most beloved pop tunes of the 1970s and ‘80s, including “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” “Take a Chance,” “Waterloo” and “Fernando.”
“This is an evolution of the orchestra,” Gajewski said. “We like to see ourselves as always evolving, never keeping still, always trying to look at the next thing and the thing after that for what might be interesting for the public and what might be interesting musically.”
National Philharmonic Orchestra opens its season at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22 with an all-Beethoven program featuring Symphony No. 3 Eroica and Triple Concerto in C Major, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets range from $29 to $79, free for ages 7 to 17, $10 for college students. Pre-concert lecture begins 75 minutes before the performance and offers an opportunity to meet orchestra members and learn about their instruments. For tickets, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org.