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.