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.

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