Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms

I had not intended to go to a concert this evening, but ended up needing to come back to Philadelphia from Washington on an earlier train than originally planned.  So I could not resist hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra for a second time on this trip.  Most of the principal chairs had this evening off, but no matter: it’s still the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere.

Nathalie Stutzmann conducted, part of a series of women conductors the Orchestra is consciously featuring this season (good for them!).  I had vaguely heard of her (reading her bio seemed familiar), but did not previously know her.  She is a French contralto who recently turned to conducting.  Over a crystal clear baton beat in her right hand, she crafted sounds in her left, drawing the orchestra along expressively.  They responded with subtle, nuanced playing, with wonderful individual lines combining into a balanced, fulfilling, whole sound.

This playing immediately came on show for the concert overture: The Hebrides by Felix Mendelssohn, in which the Orchestra rocked us gently on the sea, lush strings swaying, as the composer crossed to Fingal’s Cave, the approach announced by increasingly evocative winds.  Despite the hall’s dry acoustics, this piece served (under Stutzmann’s direction) its purpose to demonstrate the warmth of this orchestra at every level, and their mastery throughout the instruments of landscape painting (Mendelssohn not only wrote this concert overture, but made a painting of the scene as well, which in such a performance we can dispense with, since the music alone suffices to let us hear the visuals).

The Orchestra’s concertmaster, David Kim, came out next for the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch.  He does not have a huge solo sound, but he does have a rich one, and he obviously knows how to play at the front of this orchestra, making a wonderful partnership.  Stutzmann restrained the orchestra during the solo violin features, never overwhelming Kim and keeping the performance balanced.  For the tutti sections, she drew the orchestra out fully, without creating unnecessary startling contrast.

After the intermission came the Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms.  The first movement had clear echoes of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides which had opened the concert, a similarity of line and craft.  But Mendelssohn had gotten there almost half a century earlier.  Brahms’ music was well-constructed as always, but had little new to say.  However, over the course of the symphony, this orchestra gave feeling to his lines, never dragging, lilting as necessary.  If not an evocative trip to the Scottish Islands to take in a natural wonder, then at least it was still a wonderful journey.

Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Theofanidis, Beethoven, Mozart

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music is one of the leading conservatories in the United States, so always nice to see what the Curtis Symphony Orchestra is up to: if they have fun on stage (as they did this afternoon), then the mood is contagious and the audience has fun too.

This afternoon’s program in the Kimmel Center was a mixed affair, designed to show off a wide range of musicians rather than to highlight anyone or anything in particular.  Bizarrely, the concert opened (unannounced and not listed in the program) with the US National Anthem (nice arrangement, but… why exactly?  It felt like we were at a sporting event or something.  The students at Curtis are also an international bunch – I don’t know what percentage are Americans, but surely a large number of non-Americans were on the stage, so it just seemed weird and out-of-place).

The first programmed piece was Drum Circles by Christopher Theofanidis.  Written earlier this year, the work featured seven percussionists (four stage front with multiple instruments each, and three more conventional percussionists at the back of the stage) and orchestral continuo.  At times it veered in the direction of new age music, but in general it held together nicely and with more substance, emphasizing unusual combinations of sounds (mostly from pitched percussion instruments).  The overall mood remained creative and original while firmly based in classical musical traditions.  The student conductor Yuwon Kim kept everything under good control.

After the intermission, the concert became more conventional and we went to the opera.  Robert Kahn came on to conduct a dramatic Leonore Overture #3 by Ludwig van Beethoven, shaping it as a tone poem – the opera Fidelio in miniature – rather than as an overture (at which even Beethoven recognized it was less effective and replaced it with a simpler overture for the opera).  But although not a great overture, it is great music as a stand-alone (and the convention introduced by Gustav Mahler to perform it during the scene change in the middle of Act II of Fidelio was also brilliant).  Important however it is performed is an understanding of the entire opera, and that sense of drama pervaded this performance.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra who also mentors conductors at Curtis (including Kim and Kahn) came out to perform four extended ensembles from operas by Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (two each from Cosi Fan Tutte and Figaro).  What worked best here was precisely the ensemble nature of the excerpts – no need to highlight individual singers but rather to show how they could perform as a whole group (each selection had a different cast, with a couple of people repeating but mostly new groups for each).  The voices were mixed in quality (none bad, but some stronger or more expressive than others) but worked well as a team effort, and they clearly had chemistry with each other.  Behind them, the orchestra gave tremendous support.  The audience smiled broadly and laughed (appropriately) at the comic nuances.

Pennsylvania Ballet, Academy of Music

Minkus, Don Quixote

I think the last time I went to see a complete ballet performed live was in around 1979, with the Pennsylvania Ballet (I am pretty sure it was Coppelia by Léo Delibes).  I suppose there is a good reason I have waited 40 years to go again – same Pennsylvania Ballet company, but this time Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus.  After this experience, I might wait another 40 years (until 2059) to go another time.

It is not like I do not see ballet regularly.  Thanks to silly French convention, ballets are inserted in many 19th century operas (often disruptive, sometimes not, but usually only a limited set of dance pieces within a larger musical score).  I’ve also seen individual scenes in different contexts.  But sitting through an entire ballet seemed a chore.  As I am visiting my mother in Philadelphia and she wanted to go, I was a good sport and tagged along (who knows, maybe I’d change my mind and like it).  It was also fun to go to an event in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (still owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, although they moved to the Kimmel Center in 2001 (neither hall has good acoustics), where I attended so many concerts and operas when growing up in this city.

I admit I had to look Minkus up, as he is not a composer I had ever encountered before (it seems for good reason).  A Jew born in Vienna in 1826 (where he died in 1917), he seems to have been good at one thing: writing insipid, cloying, utterly pointless music that happened to be easy to dance to.  He spent most of his life in Russia, where he churned out buckets of this droll, pasted together ad nauseum to make ballets such as the one this evening (based loosely on an episode in Cervantes’ book) for theaters in St. Petersburg and Moscow.  A number or two would have sufficed – a whole evening of this drivel was just maddening.  I could listen to dances by the Strauß family all day, but they had talent to write more than just danceable tunes but rather some quite good music – Minkus seems to have missed out on that concept entirely.  Beatrice Jona Affron conducted an unspectacular pit orchestra – I suppose she and the orchestra cannot be held accountable for the music, but only someone with a lobotomy could perform this stuff more than once (the run is for eleven performances spread over ten days, which must be truly mind-numbing).

As for the dancing: my mother (who would know) said it was indeed very good, and I will take her word for it since I do not feel competent to judge it.  My problem is that I have lived in Tbilisi, and having seen how Georgians dance, I am not sure that anyone else will ever impress me.  All dancing pales in comparison to Georgian dance.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Schubert, Mahler

I have now heard Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony three times in 2019.  Today’s performance, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was the best.

Nézet-Séguin took us on an emotional roller-coaster.  He took the opening funeral march with deliberate pacing, emphasizing the deep dark bass lower registers to create a fearsome rumble upon which to construct the rest of the amusement park.  Up the mood went to the blazing heights, only to come tumbling down in sheer terror.  The aborted chorale at the end of second movement provided a glimpse ahead, before it too came crashing down.

The transformation occurred in the middle movement, which began with a warped dance full of foreboding until it resolved into something more hopeful.  Then the fourth movement adagietto came across not as its usual melancholic self, but rather as something positive, to lead into an exuberant final movement, now with the complete chorale achieving its fullest triumph.

The Orchestra managed these mixed emotions with ease.  I prefer to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour in better halls, since the acoustics in the Kimmel Center just are not very good.  But even in this dull hall, the orchestra shone.  If Minasi’s interpretation of this work with the Mozarteum Orchestra in May represented an experiment in approaching what was for that conductor an unfamiliar symphony, and Barenboim’s interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Festival in August was conventional and missing angst, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians drained their souls this afternoon.

Unfortunately – and a big unfortunately – the Orchestra’s principal trumpet is undergoing shoulder surgery and was unable to perform, so they substituted in his place the principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera.  He just was not very good (or at least far inferior to the standard of this orchestra) and flubbed too many notes in what is a very exposed trumpet part.  They should have let one of the other orchestra trumpeters take on the principal part, and brought the Met’s musician in for a less-exposed part (the score has four trumpets, so he might have been able to handle the fourth trumpet OK).  The rest of the Orchestra (definitely the best on this side of the Atlantic) sounded spectacular, full of nuance, charm, and verve, which made this substitution particularly painful.

Speaking of not very good musicians: the piano soloist in the concert’s first half, Louis Lortie was emotionless and mechanical.  He hit the notes (which I suppose is more than the Met’s trumpeter managed during the Mahler), but without any sense of feeling at all (actually, the Met’s trumpeter at least had feeling).  Wind Lortie up like a watch and he can keep time.  The music was Franz Schubert‘s Wanderer Fantasy as arranged for piano and orchestra by Ferenc Liszt.  The orchestra sounded warm and cheerful – but Lortie not so much.  I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that they chose the Liszt arrangement (Schubert’s original was for piano solo, and Lortie would have been even worse without the orchestra keeping this thing going).

Mozarteum Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus

Glinka, Bartók, Saint-Saëns

I spent a colorful (if dark colors) Sunday morning with the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg’s Great Festival House.  The three works on the program did not logically fit together, except perhaps for their color palette.  Riccardo Minasi, the orchestra’s music director, certainly saw to that.

The overture to Mikhail Glinka‘s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila energized the hall from the outset.  Glinka used dark Russian colors to highlight folk and dance-able music.  Although the overture is well-known, the opera gets performed rarely, which in my opinion is a huge oversight – indeed, a good production of this opera (such as the only time I have seen it performed, by the Novaya Opera in 2010, a production I remember fondly) is magical in a way Mozart’s Zauberflöte can be and would hook generations of children on opera.  I keep repeating this every time I hear the overture in a concert, in the hope that someone might actually start programming the entire opera (and not some imbecilic self-important German opera director, but rather someone with actual talent interested in staging the opera).  The overture is fun; the whole opera is more so.

When Béla Bartók died in 1945, he was still working on a viola concerto.  One of his students completed the orchestration, and fifty years later Bartók’s son made additional tweaks, to produce the version we heard today.  It also employed dark coloration, alternatingly moody and folkish.  It’s not a work I’d heard before, but would gladly again.  Violist Antoine Tamestit made a wonderful sound and a statement about an under-appreciated instrument.  Indeed, if the question about Glinka’s Ruslan is why that opera is rarely performed, then the question Bartók’s concerto provoked – or at least in this interpretation – is why there are not more viola concerti.  The instrument may not hit the highs of the violin, nor the warm tenor of the cello, but it has something to say in the alto range.

Minasi borrowed the concertmaster’s violin, and accompanied Tamestit in a lively duet to liven the mood as we headed into break.  This was quite short, but maintained positive energy in the house.

The question I had going into the second half of the concert was: why would anyone program Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Symphony #3 (inscribed “With Organ”) in a house that does not contain an organ?  They can and do wheel out an electric simulated organ with speaker amplification, but it’s not the real thing and makes a pitiful substitute.  Indeed, the Dresden Staatskapelle fell on its face in this house in 2017 trying to do just that.  But Minasi and the Mozarteum Orchestra had an answer to this question.  Instead of having the organ as a central part of the music, they instead highlighted the rich symphonic colors (Saint-Saëns was of course inspired by the tone poems of Ferenc Liszt, in whose memory he wrote the work), and the organ emerged almost as an afterthought, augmenting the depth of the colors but not actually painting them itself.  This approach worked under the circumstances (the symphony is thrilling with a proper organ, but without one this alternative interpretation was quite good as well).