Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Bernstein, Tschaikowsky, Elgar

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin returned for a second night in the Musiverein’s Golden Hall, making a bigger splash with the audience than last night: bigger applause devolving to rhythmic clapping and a call for an encore.  To be honest: this orchestra certainly deserved the ovation, but I’m not convinced tonight was better than last.

The first half of the concert had one peculiar piece, Leonard Bernstein‘s Second Symphony, the “Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein was a far better conductor and intellectual than he was a composer, but this is one of his better compositions.  That does not make it any less pretentious.  Part One was everywhere (as the composer intended), which I suppose is what gives it the sense of anxiety.  But it was a joyous Part One – a musical description of four people getting drunk together, but each lonely and self-absorbed, in a bar, they seemed to be embibing a bit too much and may have actually been rather happy when not mourning their own existence.  Part Two, on the other hand, never seemed to figure out what it wanted to be, shifting musical styles (including a bit of jazz) without settling on anything.  This may have been a bit too weird.  The Orchestra could certainly handle this tricky music with no problem at all – the only one who seemed to be anxious was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the piano soloist (the work is in many ways more piano concerto than symphony), whose mouth remained agape and whose eye stared up at Nézet-Séguin with a look of utter fear.  Thibaudet appears to have told his barber to cut his hair to match Bernstein’s own hairstyle, and there was a passing similarity, so perhaps this was indeed the pianist channeling the composer’s spirit.

For the second half of the concert, the Orchestra pulled out Tschaikowsky‘s Fourth Symphony.  His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are performed far too often.  They are good music, but it’s just hard to say anything new.  This Orchestra’s thrilling Tschaikowsky Fifth in Dresden in 2015, for example, still rings in my ears – it was that good.  Tonight’s Fourth… wonderful performance, but I heard nothing I haven’t heard before.  So that was a bit disappointing.

But yes it was a wonderful performance, and the audience appreciated it maybe more than I did.  The solo bows elicited roars (particularly for the principal oboist, Richard Woodhams, who is retiring at the end of this tour, whose solo bow inspired massive foot thumping across the hall).  So the orchestra gave us an orchestration of Edward Elgar‘s Liebesgruß to show off its lush string sound, as an encore.

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Philadelphia Orchestra, Musikverein (Vienna)

Brahms, Schumann, Strauss

It’s always wonderful to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour performing in a proper hall and not the dull box they have in the Kimmel Center.  Tonight, they hit the Musikverein for the first of a two-night set with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium.

The second half of the concert was spectacular, featuring the best performance of Schumann‘s Fourth Symphony I have ever heard – a mix of mystery, wistfullness, and outright joy.  This was followed by Richard Strauss‘ tone poem Don Juan, in an interpretation which emphasized the individual virtuosic lines.  Not sure where to begin on this, but maybe the duet between the oboe and clarinet was most special.  Or was it the horn solos?  Or the violin?  Or… or…  From my seat I had a good view of Nézet-Séguin, and watched him cajole the Orchestra emotionally, and then heard the immediate response.  These forces make music so well together.

This intimacy was also on show for the concert’s first half, where they were joined by Hélène Grimaud for the Brahms first piano concerto.  I am afraid not even the Philadelphia Orchestra can rescue that Brahms concerto, although it was a valiant effort.  The playing sounded great, but there was just not much to work with (or too much – an hour of musical ideas that weren’t all bad but Brahms was not creative enough to know what to do with them).  According to the program notes, Bruckner was a fan of the main theme of the first movement (“Siehst, das is a Symphoniethema!” – “You see, that is a symphony theme!” he apparently declared to a student).  Indeed, there was something there, and if it had been a Bruckner symphony we would have found ourselves dreaming in a gothic cathedral he would have built from it.  But it was a Brahms piano concerto, so all he could do with it was plant a vegetable garden for the monks.  Maybe they were good vegetables, and maybe Grimaud, Nézet-Séguin, and the Philadelphians made good tour guides, but I’d rather admire Bruckner’s cathedral than wander around in Brahms’ monastery farm.

The concert had very high security (indeed, I have never seen so much security for anything in Austria, including when I attended a reception hosted by the President last Fall with many other dignitaries from Austria and neighboring countries in the room).  Armed police roamed everywhere (outside and inside the building), as did ubiquitous Israeli close protection teams.  There were also a bunch of huge men who looked like nightclub bouncers stationed around the hall (apparently recommended by the Israelis).

This all had to do with the fact that at the end of the Orchestra’s European tour tomorrow, they head off to tour Israel, and the anti-Semites are protesting everywhere.  The Orchestra started its tour in Belgium, one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe today (I make no excuses for Austria, its failure to address its history, and the fact that unrepentent German nationalists with an arguably classical national socialist political agenda are sitting in the current government – but Austria is actually pretty tame, which is frightening).  So in Brussels the Orchestra’s concert was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Semitic protestors, which led the Orchestra to contact the Israelis for advice and the host cities on the rest of the European tour for high alerts.  At the start of tonight’s concert, a Musikverein representative came on stage to announce that if there were a protest, then the Orchestra would stop playing and walk off the stage, and return to start the concert over after the protest ended; so, since the Orchestra believes in the right to free speech, it was requested that if anyone in the audience wanted to protest, that they do so now before the concert began.  There was a loud applause for the announcement, but no protest.

And there was certainly no protest about the concert itself.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Machover

I would not normally post a review of a rehearsal, particularly one for a world premiere performance where the orchestra and composer were still fine-tuning ahead of the first concert.  But for this rehearsal, I have decided to make an exception (albeit delaying the public posting for a day until after the world premiere has taken place).  This is because I realized I am not actually reviewing the performance.

Tod Machover’s Philadelphia Voices is about to have its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a three-concert set in Philadelphia this week and then at Carnegie Hall in New York next week (along with works by Bernstein and Mussorgsky, not rehearsed this evening).

On an intellectual level, I’m glad I went.  On a musical level, there’s nothing to say.  It’s an especially awful piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra to bring to Carnegie Hall – a Philadelphia audience might have fun with some of the inside jokes and immediate cultural references, but New Yorkers will lose that dimension, exposing that there is nothing else there.

Machover crowd-sourced his thing-a-ma-bobby.  He cobbled the inane text (partly sung, partly pre-recorded voices from around the city played over speakers) together from various sources, including on-the-street interviews (or in one case an interview with a short-order cook making a cheese steak).  Some of it came from snippets of documents like the US Constitution (written in Philadelphia).  The text contained juxtaposed words or phrases often presenting inside jokes; recent events ranging from the Pope’s visit that took place while Machover had begun to work on this, to the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl earlier this year complete with the play-by-play announcer’s calling of the final play of that game; and some truly dreadful poetry including one section that began: “My house is full of black people.”

At a pre-rehearsal discussion, Machover answered an audience member’s question about what will happen with this piece after this initial set of concerts, explaining that Haydn had written his London symphonies and they became part of the standard repertory. But Haydn’s “London” symphonies got the name because he wrote a set of them there (or at least for premieres there), not because they have anything specifically to do with London ranging from insider knowledge to recent (from 200 years ago) football championships. Haydn just wrote good music.

But intellectually, learning how Machover constructed this work (wandering around Philadelphia recording people and sounds, while getting to know the city – he himself is not from Philadelphia), and then hearing a full (final) rehearsal in which the composer and Nézet-Séguin had to make finishing touches and to see how to make it function in real life, was worth the several hours I spent in the Kimmel Center.  As a native Philadelphian, I also had fun with parts of the text.

Four different choral groups, apparently mostly drawn from a good selection of inner-city kids, sang the words.  For them, this was an opportunity to rehearse with the best orchestra in the United States and under one of the best conductors of the 40-ish generation, and then to perform live at New York’s historic Carnegie Hall (and of course at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an undistinguished venue but likely exciting for these kids).  This was heartening to see.  What a great experience for these kids – and maybe they’ll even stick around for some real music.

Oh, yes… the music.  It was mostly tonal, and required performance on instruments (including voice) despite many voice-overs, but I’m not sure it was music.  It had no discernable structure or direction (not just a factor of the strange text, but a fundamental problem with the construction itself).

What did it really remind me of?  I attended a bizarrely experimental elementary school in Philadelphia.  On a typical day, we walked up and down the streets of this city exploring different neighborhoods (and once a week they bussed us city kids out to a working farm).  We had no formal classes – maybe the closest we came to a recognizable class period was music, which they taught us using the educational system developed by Carl Orff.  I could easily see my elementary school collaboratively writing this piece – both the words and music – and then performing it for our parents on our recorders and xylophones (and singing along) in the school’s “Multi-Purpose Room.”  Our parents would have had fun (or at least would have pretended to).  And then after that performance there would never – ever – be any reason to perform our piece again.

Philadelphia Voices should share the same fate.   Creative?  Sure.  But place- and time-specific, and otherwise with nothing of substance.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lindberg, Stravinsky, Prokofiev

The Philadelphia Orchestra‘s concert today was dedicated in memory of my father, so I made a rare appearance on the other side of the Pond despite some travel chaos due to winter weather in London (where I always transit through) and on the US east coast.  It’s wonderful to hear this orchestra – by far the best in the US and now clearly among the top five in the world (for those readers wondering: I’d put them on a par with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, albeit below the Vienna Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from Munich).  Their home venue in the Kimmel Center remains the biggest drawback: sitting on this stage, they always sound like they are playing behind a scrim.  The sounds come out clearly enough, but distant and simewhat dulled.  Those who have not experienced this orchestra would be wise to go hear them on tour in a hall with proper acoustics (they are coming to Europe and Israel in May and June, although I’m likely to miss them in Vienna).

Today’s concert program had no particular connection to my father, just the dedication.  The rapidly rising under-30 star Lahav Shani took the podium, for a program of music by Christian Lindberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Prokofiev.  I actually heard Shani conduct the Prokofiev work – his Fifth Symphony – already one month ago, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing in Salzburg.  That performance of this war symphony was almost joyful, accenting the dancing rhythms, and so I wondered how the two orchestras might compare with Shani’s interpretation.  To my surprise, Shani gave a completely different interpretation today, one which accentuated the many talents of this orchestra.  Where the Vienna Symphony (that city’s second orchestra) sounds excellent and itself world-class, it has a more uniform sound.  The Philadelphia Orchestra is the more virtuosic, and this let Shani draw out the individual playing (but always keeping these sounds as part of an orchestral whole).  Gone was the (actually convincing if different) dancing celebration from last month; back was the desolate landscape of war tinged happily with the knowledge of impending victory.  Better orchestra, better performance.

The first half of the concert had opened with Akbank Bunka, an eclectic trumpet concerto by Lindberg, with the Orchestra’s principle trumpet David Bilger as soloist.  I may have been the only person in the hall who had heard it performed before (in Salzburg about three years ago, with Lindberg himself conducting his own Arctic Symphony Orchestra, with soloist Pacho Flores).  Again: better orchestra, better performance.  Except that it was a concerto, and despite Bilger’s clear talents, as an orchestral musician he is not the showman (Flores is).  Bilger’s warm tone blended well with the orchestra’s wintery arctic accompaniment, but did not jump out off the stage.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded off the first half.  But someone’s phone in the audience kept ringing (bad enough that it rang, but worse that the person refused to turn it off and let it keep ringing).  Shani twice stopped and started over from the beginning.  If I had been sitting next to the person, I would have smashed his phone under my shoe.  The ushers should have done so themselves – but they did not even eject him from the hall.

Although this severely broke the mood, the Orchestra’s playing soon restored order to the world, and the Stravinsky work allowed them to showcase what they do best.  The orchestra’s justly famous strings propelled this piece (and the others), not just serving as the base for the music but actually pushing everything forward, while the winds (and percussion) added vivid color, each line exceptional.  While bringing off a full ensemble sound, the individual talents nevertheless shone.  It is this extraordinary skill set that enabled Shani to take the interpretation he did with the Prokofiev at variance with the one he used last month.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Lyadov, Korngold, Tschaikowsky

A trip to the United States would not feel complete without checking the calendar of the Philadelphia Orchestra, by far the finest orchestra in the land.  The only negative is the Orchestra’s less-than-ideal concert hall  in the Kimmel Center, which looks pretty enough on the inside but has somewhat dull acoustics.  The sound is clear enough (and with this orchestra, that is fantastic), but having heard this orchestra perform elsewhere I know full well how much better the orchestra can sound in a brighter hall.

Specifically, tonight’s program included Tschaikowsky‘s Fifth Symphony.  I heard this orchestra perform this symphony in Dresden’s Semper Opera House in 2015, an orgasmic performance that has made me completely avoid listening to this symphony again ever since.  Tonight’s version had all of the orchestral nuance of that 2015 performance, but with a damper fully in place.  Despite that, the Orchestra made the large moments sound almost delicate while stamping authority and conviction on the quieter bars.  This suitably complex retelling of a warhorse symphony culminated in a brash march that practically swung side-to-side rather than relentlessly forward, a happy triumph (even if leaving me less emotionally exhausted than I was after hearing the Philadelphians perform it in Dresden two years ago).

Where this orchestra continues to excel is in its ability to take a group of virtuosi, each instrumentalist amazing the audience in skill, and join them together into a whole that is still substantially more than the sum of these not insubstantial parts.  No other orchestra in the United States accomplishes this so consistently (if at all) right now.

The talent came on show right away in the concert’s opening selection, Kikimora by Anatol Lyadov.  This short tone poem begins mysteriously in the low strings, and includes fine lines for assorted winds, each more sumptuous than the next.

The middle piece on the program, Erich Wolfgang Korngold‘s Violin Concerto, practically echoed the Lyadov in its middle movement (an unexpected link between these two seemingly unrelated works).  The outer movements were more ostentatious, the solo lines (provided tonight by Renaud Capuçon, whose warm tone also got swallowed up by the hall’s poor acoustics) well supported by an orchestra which matched – if not exceeded – the soloist in talent.  In reality, the star of this concerto tonight was not Capuçon but rather the Orchestra.

The Orchestra’s young Conductor-in-Residence, Cristian Măcelaru, sprung in on short notice when scheduled conductor Tugan Sokhiev had to withdraw for medical reasons.  Măcelaru kept Sokhiev’s original program, and dextrously led the orchestra through it.

 

 

Philadelphia Orchestra, Konzerthaus Berlin

Muhly, Schostakowitsch, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninov

Tonight the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared at the Berlin Konzerthaus with a rather more-challenging program. The Berlin Konzerthaus is famous for its acoustics, but from tonight’s observation this praise is not deserved. Maybe it got this reputation only in comparison with the other concert hall in town, the Philharmonie, which I discovered last night is truly awful. It is also clear that the house management knows something is wrong with the acoustics, as plexiglass plates have been installed over the orchestra to deflect the sound (either that, or to keep unruly Berliners in the side balconies from spitting on the orchestra). Nine additional large plexiglass dishes hung near the ceiling to try to get the sound to do something (or were they UFOs hovering up there to hear the Philadelphians?). In short, the acoustics are not bad but nothing special and the house clearly knows this.

However, because the acoustics were more straightforward, I did get a better chance to hear Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly that I heard for the first time two nights ago. While the Orchestra did need that piece in Dresden to understand the acoustical bounces of that hall (which, as I noted, had better acoustics but the bounces off the walls took getting used to), tonight they could jump right in and it came across more clearly and somewhat less crazy than it sounded on Sunday. Nevertheless, although the piece changed its musical style, it did not go anywhere, and the common thread throughout could not sustain it for the full length. If Muhly edits it down to something shorter, it may stand.

Works by Schostakowitsch and Rachmaninov demostrated what composers with something to say can achieve despite wild rhythms and modern sounds – Muhly is not in their league.

From Schostakowitsch, we got the First Violin Concerto, with the solos played defiantly by Lisa Batiashvili. Batiashvili exhibited a warm, deep tone, while remaining crisp. The Schostakowitsch concerto allows for the violin to play along with the orchestra but periodically change its tune and go its own individual way, still hewing closely to the orchestra, as if to show that an individual can preserve an identity in the face of oppression and demands for conformity. But then, even those bets were off, as the violin solo turned into a full-out cadenzaof enormous complexity. Batiashvili made this into a real tour-de-force. Did Schostakowitsch (who wrote the piece for David Oistrakh) really expect human violinists could play this? Batiashvili did. And when the cadenza finished, the orchestra joined back in at a level unheard before. The violin individualist had freed the masses.

After a standing ovation, Nézet-Séguin sat down at the piano on the side of the stage, and Batiashvili joined him for a Tschaikowsky romance, that lowered the tension going into the break. But after the intermission, the gloves came off again for a crazy Rachmaninov Third Symphony. Although it got its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have decided to champion it, it really is not one of the composer’s better works. But if anyone can do it, then this orchestra will at least make the case. The concert ended with another encore designed to bring down the tension: Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, highlighting the violins and woodwinds. Wonderful playing.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Semperoper (Dresden)

Muhly, Grieg, Chopin, Tschaikowsky

The last time I visited Dresden, the city consisted of big empty areas with periodic piles of rubble. Presumably, the communists had wanted to remind everyone of what British and American bombers had done to the city in the Second World War, quite ignoring the ravages that Russia had inflicted. The city center remained virutally empty (I couldn’t even find a hotel, so only stayed for a day from an early morning arrival by train to a night train back out). The wrecked core was surrounded by hideous apartment blocks. In the midst, the Semperoper building had been rebuilt, but (as I was told tonight) only the exterior.

Today, I arrived in Dresden to find it unrecognizable. First of all, there is a city here. Some neighborhoods have modern buildings, while the core of the center has been rebuilt to look like it did before the War. Tourists throng the streets. City residents bask on the grassy lawns and beaches which appeared on the river banks. And the Semperoper, too, has reopened.

The Philadelphia Orchestra tested the hall tonight. The acoustics were clear, if possibly too radiant. The sound not only approached me from the stage, but from behind as well. The Orchestra said they were not always sure how the music was bouncing off the walls and coming back to them, and which to play with. So they guessed.

Their guesses were good beyond belief. Is this one of the top twenty orchestras in the world? Top ten? Top five? They certainly made a case for themselves tonight.

The concert opened with Mixed Messages by Nico Muhly, which had its world premiere by this orchestra earlier in the month. He says he does not write in any particular style, just music he would enjoy listening too. He has peripatetic tastes, although the fact that he composes music to match his tastes and not to shock makes him a big improvement on many contemporary composers. I’m not sure what original he had to say – Charles Ives said many of these things much better 100 years ago. But I’ll have another chance to hear this work on Tuesday and maybe I’ll find something. In the meantime, it gave the orchestra a good warm-up and a chance to test the acoustics in the hall before the other works.

There followed a passionate reading of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Jan Lisiecki. The Canadian Lisiecki, all of 20 years old, had an obvious rapport with his countryman, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and together they crafted magic with the orchestra. Lisiecki gave us a encore, of a Chopin Nocturn – the posthumous one famously played by Wladislaw Szpilman live on Polish radio at the time the Germans invaded, a performance he was therefore unable to complete for six years and unfathomable hardship. Lisiecki’s reading was pensive, moving, and restrained.

If the Grieg concerto was passionate, Piotr Tschaikowsky’s Symphony #5 was orgasmic. Nézet-Séguin nourished the dialogue among the instruments (and it certainly helps when every instrument in the dialogue is world-class and able to ascribe new meanings to well-heard phrases), and with a lilt here, an abrupt tempo change there, and still another tense moment relieved by wildness, he took Tschaikowsky’s pent-up romanticism and set it loose in the hall. If this interpretation had become any more intense, Tschaikowsky’s music would have morphed into Scriabin. I think I now understand how Scriabin, who did not come to the Moscow Conservatory until long after Tschaikowsky had stopped teaching there, could emerge from the same music school. The Tschaikowsky Fifth is a warhorse, all too often performed, but tonight I heard something I have never heard before.

The Dresden audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation. They pounded the floor with their feet. Curtain call after curtain call ensued, until Nézet-Séguin silenced the crowd and said thank you. But an encore was not forthcoming. The orchestra looked exhausted – and an 8:00 p.m. start time had not helped (concert finished close to 10:30, even without the encore) for a long European tour. The other oddity, of course, with such a start time is that restaurants in Dresden were mostly closed or had stopped serving by the time the concert ended. Very odd to schedule a late start time in a city that does not stay open especially late.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

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.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Beethoven, Liszt, Respighi

In Philadelphia for a day, I popped into a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal led by guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.  Although I recognized this as a rehearsal and not a concert, it gave me a chance to hear how my hometown orchestra sounds these days, as well as to test out the acoustics of the hall from a new vantage point.  As for the former, the Philadelphians are back in form; as for the latter, I remain unconvinced.  I’ve tried the parterre before, as well as the lower boxes; today I tried the first row of the center balcony (which juts out from the upper balcony, so the sound does not get trapped).  The sound indeed came out pure, but still distant – something about this hall makes the Orchestra sound like it is playing behind a scrim or screen.  It’s an attractive new hall, but the acoustics do not work.

The program opened with the King Stephen Overture by Beethoven, a work that the Orchestra indicated it was unfamiliar with and which almost none of the members had played before.  This may account for the tentativeness with which they approached the piece, with only the reeds appearing to grasp the Beethovenian idiom.  However, Frühbeck proved able, and the Orchestra warmed throughout.

Beethoven’s charming Eighth Symphony gets overlooked between its two popular neighbors. Nevertheless, Beethoven still wrote it, and Frühbeck got the Orchestra to capture Beethoven’s typical drama, augmented by the Philadelphians’ famous lush stringwork.   This work proved the highlight of the concert (or at least the rehearsal).

The young and dashing French pianist Lise de la Salle joined the Orchestra for the Liszt Second Piano Concerto, another piece showing off a composer in his typical idiom.  She instantly developed a good rapport with the Orchestra, and established a dialogue. The Orchestra held back maybe a little too much, but at the end they went back and rehearsed a few sections she had flagged, when the Orchestra realized it could pronounce its lines without overwhelming her energetic playing.

Respighi’Pini di Roma rounded off the program.  A warhorse in everyone’s music collection and a favorite over the radio, this piece is actually quite rarely performed (from my observation at least).  The Orchestra performed it with gusto.  Clearly they knew this one.

Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Beethoven

I had a rare chance to hear my hometown orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in concert tonight in its home in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.  As a Philadelphian myself, I feel entitled to switch back into my hometown persona – Philadelphians expect top performances from their institutions and make sure to come out deeply critical of anything less.  For much of its existence, the Philadelphia Orchestra has made the city proud, and so the city can reasonably expect it to remain among the best in the world.  Whether it does or not depends on many factors, and we Philadelphians will certainly call them out.

Driven by its incompetent management into bankruptcy, at least the Orchestra still sounds excellent musically.  Of course, its incompetent management is also responsible for the lack of a decent music director for many years now.  The last time I heard the Philadelphians perform, the Orchestra’s previous Music Director Christoph Eschenbach dully kept time on the podium.  Tonight, the current Chief Conductor, the even-more-uninspiring Charles Dutoit (who obviously uses the same tailor for his hairpiece as he does for his tailcoat), waved the baton.  The Orchestra did not need him.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’Symphony of Psalms.  This is an odd piece, which might be understandable in the hands of a decent conductor but remained beyond my comprehension tonight.  Stravinsky alternated between ugly and mystical music, to set psalms which praised God – psalms whose very nature should take neither ugly nor mystical music.  The unorthodox instrumentation (no violins nor viole) added to the strangeness.  I’ll have to listen again some time, but not with Dutoit on the podium.

After the intermission came a dull reading of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Neither strenuous nor fluid in his approach, Dutoit managed to give the piece absolutely no lilt.  His listless stick-waving resulted in missed cues and confused dynamics across the orchestra.  Dutoit also managed to make the third movement Adagio – one of my favorite movements from the entire symphonic repertory, and a notoriously difficult test of a conductor’s skill – both too fast and too long.  In his rush, he lost the harmonies and shattered the lines, and the fourth movement could not come soon enough.  “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” sang the bass solo in the fourth movement: “O Friends, not these tones” – indeed not those other tones either, unfortunately.

In isolation, the Orchestra played well under the circumstances.  The Philadelphia Singers Chorale enunciated emotionlessly.  The ensemble of soloists – Melanie DienerMary Phillips, Joseph Kaiser, and Nathan Berg – fulfilled its purpose.  Berg’s voice sounded dry, however – and indeed all four soloists were gulping from water bottles.

The acoustics in the Kimmel Center remain overrated.  The orchestra sounded like it was performing behind a screen, its tone somehow dulled.  For a contemporary hall, the Kimmel Center looks reasonable enough, with darker wood than what has become common elsewhere, but I have never bought the claims that its high-tech design produced anything remotely reaching the spectacular acoustics its fans claim.  This is simply a dull hall.

And Dutoit has to go (a new Music Director – young and little-tested but enthusiastic and well-regarded by the Orchestra – has been named beginning in Fall 2012, which cannot come soon enough).  So, too, the need to chuck from the Kimmel Center roof the entire inept management of what should be one of the greatest orchestras on the planet rather than a wreck plunged into bankruptcy.  It is not too late to save the Philadelphia Orchestra, but someone needs to do it before all of its fine musicians go elsewhere.

The audience leapt to its feet at the concert’s end, roaring approvingly in a massive standing ovation.  If this mediocre performance merited a standing ovation from a packed Philadelphia house (implying that this concert represented a much finer performance than what concert-goers have come to expect of it), then perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra has already sunk into the depths.  What a tragedy.