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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Concert Review: Nimble Strings and Cosmic Things

The Philadelphia Orchestra Explores The Planets

Neptune: the Mystic. We could have run another photo of Charles Dutoit, but what fun would that be?
 Image by Voyager 2 © 1989 National Aeronautics and Space Administration
On Tuesday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra presented a pair of works by 20th century British composers William Walton and Gustav Holst (capped by the latter's The Planets) under the brisk leadership of Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit.

The concert opened with Walton's lone Violin Concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham. Mr. Shaham displayed adept technique, whizzing through Walton's scales and arpeggios, although his instrument sounded dry and reedy against the lush sonic curtain of the orchestra.

Written as a love letter to his paramour of many years, Walton's concerto contrasts Italianate lyric melodies with a jazzy sequence of changes, influenced by what was at the time a new type of music. This is a treacherous concerto (there is no slow movement) and Mr. Shaham's energetic performance was well suited to the composer's rapid-fire writing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra charged up its hyper-drive engines and roared into The Planets, playing "Mars, the Bringer of War" with a savage, muscular drive. The brass section and the low strings dominate this movement, a thunderous protest of the stupidity of war that predates the music of both John Williams and Metallica. Thrilling low notes from the tuba and the steady chug of basses and cellos created the grinding wheel of the war machine and propelling it with a ferocious snarl.

"Venus, the Bringer of Peace" was a far more lyric affair, with eloquent melodies for the English horn, oboe, and first violin against a romantic backdrop. Mr. Dutoit took "Mercury" at a light clip, with its sparkling celesta part and woodwind solos. The orchestra seemed to gather its breath for "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity", playing this famous movement with joy and a kind of savage glee. The contrasting second theme featured the Philadelphia trademark: a round, rich cello-led tone, finely burnished and capable of elevating the spirit to the heavenly spheres that inspired Holst's suite.
The Last Planet: Neptune with its moon, Triton.
Photo by Voyager 2 © 1989 National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Holst used the last three movements of his suite to visit the obscure outer planets: Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Saturn, marked ("The Bringer of Old Age") is a grim, slow death march exploring the ear-tormenting interval of the second. It was played with funereal power. Uranus ("The Magician") allowed the brass and crack timpani players to sally forth, evoking a magic show of orchestral effects.

The finale, "Neptune: the Mystic" is sad and remote as its namesake, an icy soundscape of strings and wind accompanied by a wordless offstage women's chorus. As the orchestra played its hushed, final notes, the mysterious chorus faded to silence. Verizon Hall erupted with cheers for this successful tour of the Solar System under the baton of Captain Dutoit.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats