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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Concert Review: Finding Their Marbles

The Philadelphia Orchestra brings Stravinsky to Carnegie Hall.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's chief conductor: Charles Dutoit

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been in the headlines lately, not for the band's musical prowess, but for their board's decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Philadelphians are the first major American orchestra to declare bankruptcy, a decision that has sent rumblings of doom throughout the classical music industry.

Those rumblings were silenced at the Orchestra's Tuesday night appearance at Carnegie Hall under the baton of chief conductor Charles Dutoit. The Swiss maestro brought a contrasting program of works by Igor Stravinsky: the sunny ballet score Apollo and the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The result was an effective contrast of light and dark, exploring two aspects of Stravinsky's neo-classical period.

The  succulent, dark tone of the Philadelphia strings have been a trademark of this orchestra since the heady days when Leopold Stokowski stood upon the podium. This performance of Apollo, a work written just for the strings, featured this rich, thick carpet of sound, with soaring solos from the principal players in each section. Apollo marks a very different Stravinsky from the tribal thunder of the Rite of Spring: a work of neo-classical elegance that recalls the music of Haydn.

The jarring, heavy chords that mark the opening bars of Oedipus Rex have the opposite effect. Oedipus uses huge, rough blocks of brass and percussion, combined with an all-male Latin chorus to evoke the marble and masks of Greek tragedy. The Latin setting of Sophocles (by Jean Cocteau) features no onstage action, and all the events of Oedipus' downfall are described by an omniscient narrative before they happen.

In other words, this is the perfect opera to do in a concert setting.

Tenor Paul Groves was a strong Oedipus, exuding confidence in the first act that slowly degenerated into panic. Baritone Robert Gierlach doubled the roles of Creon and the Messenger. While he has a fine voice, he had trouble being heard over the orchestra at full blast. Petra Lang made an impressive vocal entrance as Jocasta, but sounded unusually harsh of tone in the latter half of her scene with Oedipus. Then again, it could have been her character's panic at realizing who her husband really was.

Mr. Dutoit moved the blocks of sound around with the ease of an Athenian work crew, although the heavy orchestra occasionally overwhelmed the soloists. The orchestra played with precision, with rich trombone tones and deadly, precise percussion. The men of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale made the strongest impression as the citizenry of plague-struck Thebes, by turns terrified, enraged, and horrified at the fate of their king. Philadelphia-based Shakespearean actor David Howey was strong and sympathetic as the Narrator.

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