It was a season that almost did not happen.
But now, the National Philharmonic is back in business as they kick off the 2019-2020 season with their opening concert, called “Eroica + Beethoven,” combining Ludwig van Beethoven’s Eroica (Symphony No. 3), played by the orchestra, and his Triple Concerto in C Major, performed by guest artists, the Eroica Trio.
The program was inspired by the soon-to-be-celebrated 250th birthday of the great composer, said Piotr Gajewski, music director and conductor. The season is bookended by Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
Another reason for the combined performance is to mirror Beethoven’s work ethic as he crafted the Concerto and Symphony simultaneously.
Initially, he dedicated his third symphony to French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, but changed the name for multilayered reasons, Gajewski said.
“One was that the composer began to doubt Napoleon’s democratic ideals, and rededicated the work to the memory of a great man,” Gajewski said.
Jim Kelly, president of the National Philharmonic and one of the violists, said he is excited to play the opening concert, showcasing two of Beethoven’s works written side-by-side.
“Beethoven’s third symphony marks a change in his path as a composer as he entered his Heroic period of great musical output,” Kelly said. “He broke with the classical period and moved through the Romantic period as is demonstrated in this symphony with various themes and melodies he developed throughout. It is arguably one of the greatest musical pieces ever written.”
His favorite, continued Kelly, is the second movement, known as the funeral march, “which was truly revolutionary for its time. The theme of three is something to note.”
“(The) third symphony, key signature has three flats, three horns which was not typical. To continue to play on that theme, the Eroica Symphony and the Beethoven Triple Concerto, written situationally, show Beethoven’s play on the number 3,” Kelly said.
Formally known as Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 56, the Triple Concerto is the only concerto Beethoven completed for more than one solo instrument.
“It is a romantic and unusual piece,” said Gajewski, “and stands out in the composer’s repertoire. It has many more-progressive harmonies, and is slightly off the beaten path.”
The Concerto has been played by many famous musicians, including the Eroica Trio, said Gajewski, composed of pianist Erika Nickrenz, violinist Sara Parkins and cello player Sara Sant’Ambrogio.
Beethoven wrote many great masterpieces for piano trios, and it seems he very much enjoyed the combination of piano, violin and cello, Nickrenz said.
“But we feel so lucky that he decided to write a concerto, the first of its kind, for piano trio and orchestra,” Nickrenz said.
Referring to the name of her trio, Nickrenz said it was indeed a choice based on the ensemble’s “pure love and admiration” for Beethoven’s music. “Also, my piano training does go directly back to Beethoven; he would be considered my great-great-great-great grand teacher, which I feel is an interesting and inspiring connection for us.”
There is nothing quite like the Beethoven Triple Concerto, a work full of great power, beautiful melodies and even humor at times, particularly in the third movement, she added.
“Because he has the three soloists on stage in front of the orchestra, the piece is action-packed, with the three of us working as a unit,” Nickrens said, “spontaneously bouncing off each other’s musical ideas while having conversations with the various parts of the orchestra. Because of the way we are situated on stage, in a row not able to all see each other, we have to have a kind of ESP to play well together, listening with hyperfocus.”
“Eroica + Beethoven” takes place Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 22 at 3 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda.
There are 30-minute pre-concert lectures before each concert. www.stathmore.org.