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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Concert Review: The Chief's Last Dance

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
White tie, tails and baton: the conductor Charles Dutoit.
Charles Dutoit's tenure as Chief Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra was a happy accident, engineered as a result of the abrupt exit of former music director Christoph Eschenbach in 2006. In that time, the veteran Swiss conductor has kept a steady hand on the tiller even as the ensemble has soared through stormy seas and nearly dashed itself to death on the rocks of last year's bankruptcy filing.

On Friday night, Mr. Dutoit brought his final subscription-series program of the season to Carnegie Hall. This is not quite the end of the season for the conductor, but a program that marked the passing of the baton from Mr. Dutoit to the incoming music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Friday's program played to Mr. Dutoit's strengths, opening with a fizzing account of Mikhail Glinka's overture to the opera Ruslan i Lyudmila. The composer's biggest artistic success was an unlikely blueprint for the Russian operas that followed, combining witty violin writing with Rossini-like accelerando. Mr. Dutoit was animated and in his element, basking in the rich string sound produced by the orchestra.

The orchestra was then joined by Maria Joao Pires for Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. The Portuguese pianist is well known from recordings, but a rare visitor to the concert stage in New York. Her playing was supple and elegant, with a melodic line that drew the listener in and proved intoxicating. Chopin built the concerto so that the solo piano part is predominant over the orchestra, and Mr. Dutoit was content to take the role of accompanist. 

For the second half of the program, Mr. Dutoit chose a work from the Parisian repertory that has long been his specialty. Ravel's complete ballet score Daphnis et Chlöe requires a huge orchestra (with complex percussion and an aeilophone or wind machine) plus a chorus, singing wordless phrases to evoke the idyllic forests of mythic Greece. Most conductors skip doing the whole work, preferring several suites built from scenes within the ballet. 

Daphnis is the story of a shepherd and shepherdess who spend much of their time dancing through the woods against shimmering textures of strings and clever writing for the woodwinds and percussion. Eventually, the brass moves into overdrive when Chlöe is kidnapped by bandits, chained and forced to dance. Divine intervention (in the form of the god Pan) rescues her, and she and Daphnis spend the last act paying homage to the horned god.

Although some sections of this long score caught fire (especially the kidnapping of Chlöe and the following scene in the bandits camp) the conductor seemed to spend much time wandering in those woods along with his protagonists. Ravel's textures were stretched and slowed, and like any trip through the woods, one section of forest sounded much like another. Eventually, the closing, celebratory Danse generale arrived. The Philadelphia forces at last sprung to life in a frenzy of energy at last freed from containment.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.