Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall

Khachaturian, Mendelssohn

Dora Serviarian-Kuhn has a reputation as the world’s leading interpreter of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto.  That must be a mixed blessing, since this is clearly not one of his best works.  Although jarring, it lacks the drama of much of his music: noise does not equal excitement.  Her hands handled the leaps and bounds athletically, and I think the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra hit most of the notes.  But for a piece with a lot going on, it was actually quite dull.

In contrast, the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony after the break did provide drama in abundance.  Maestro Eduard Topchjan had the podium – my last chance to see him conduct for a while – as he led his orchestra through Mendelssohn’s scenic tour through Italy.  The Armenian Philharmonic strings still sound a little thin and the winds have a tendency to jump their cues, but those are normal problems here.  Otherwise Topchjan kept the pacing clear and lively.  The audience, which probably came in predisposed to cheer the Khachaturian work rather than the Mendelssohn, clearly knew which of the two halves of the concert came out better as evidenced through the much more rambunctious applause in the second half.

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Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Brahms, Weber, Beethoven

I accompanied my mother to a Friday afternoon Philadelphia Orchestra concert to hear how my hometown orchestra is doing.  For the first time, I sat in seats at the Kimmel Center that had good acoustics – the new hall (now not actually so new) has never impressed me.  My mother had decided that anyone making gifts in my father’s memory should make them to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a worthy and transparent recipient now recovering from years of absolutely dreadful management.

The orchestra sounded in great musical health under the baton of guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.  The clear and crisp sound had sufficient emotion to transmit the music, and provided a nice contrast to the last concert I attended with the gooey-sounding San Franciscans visiting Vienna.

The highlight of the concert, and perhaps of my entire musical year to date, came in the second piece, Weber’s Clarinet Concerto #1.  There is a reason this work receives few performances; it’s not a bad piece, but someone needs to perform it right, particularly the clarinet solos.  And prolonged music for solo clarinets could grate on the nerves.  Every so often, a special clarinetist comes along, such as Heinrich Joseph Baermann for whom Weber specifically wrote the work two centuries ago.  And today’s unrivaled clarinetist was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s own principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales.  I have never in my life heard a clarinet sound like that.  The tone was full and practically operatic, with all of the nuance of a singing voice; his instrument was not reedy or whiny but had a deep-textured wooden sound like a holy tribal flute invoking the heavans from a temple.  Apparently, he not only plays like this clarinet but constructs his instruments himself in order to perfect this tone.

The concert opened with Brahms’ “Haydn” Variations and concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony #7.  These works are justifiably popular, but to have a good concert requires performing with the warhorses rather than just going through the motions on their backs.  The strings had spring.  The winds added a warm tone.  Dohnányi maintained a justified balance, never too overbearing but never too restrained either.  The Philadelphians breathed.  They smiled.  They gleamed.  The music filled the hall and, for those two hours, brought us to a better place.