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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Concert Review: A Little Taste of Heaven

Three concertos highlight the "Philadelphia sound."
Conductor Charles Dutoit.
Mention the Philadelphia Orchestra to a music lover in the ast two years and their first thought may be "bankruptcy." The fiscally troubled orchestra did file Chapter 11 in 2011. But as Thursday night's Carnegie Hall appearance proved, high artistic standards are still the norm for the orchestra from Broad Street.

Charles Dutoit has served the Orchestra as Chief Conductor since the tumultuous 2008 exit of Christoph Eschenbach. (He will become an Emeritus next season, making way for the incoming music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.)  This concert allowed he Swiss conductor showed his experience and skill in three diverse concertos from three different composers.

The concert opened with the cerebral Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments by Frank Martin. This 1949 piece by an under-played, underrated Swiss composer  evokes Ravel in its complex orchestral fabric. Martin's work looks back to the Baroque and the idea of the concerto grosso, allowing each soloist to display their instrumental skills before breaking into small groups and engaging in a joyful, dancing finale.

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto put the spotlight on Canadian soloist James Ehnes. Mr. Ehnes played this well-known concerto with impressive technique, engaging in the lengthy, soulful discourse for his violin before flying free in the passages for violin alone. His Stradivarius poured forth the warm tone those instruments are known for, and his playing in the slow central march was fresh and emotive. As an encore, the soloist treated the house to the 16th Caprice by Niccolo Paganini.

The Concerto for Orchestra is one of Bartók's most impressive achievements. The Hungarian composer received the commission (from Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in 1943, in the middle of his miserable exile in New York City. But in addition to providing virtuoso opportunities for almost every player or section in the orchestra, Bartók took the time to skewer Russian and German culture, with wry references to Shostakovich and Wagner in the course of five movements.

Mr. Dutoit led a precise, crisp performance. He allowed the individual soloists to shine, but also created a potent blend of instruments that effectively, made the massed ensemble a soloist in its own right. The opening theme stirred itself to life, rising through the sections of the orchestra before reaching a potent climax in the brass. The second movement, with its madcap dance rhythms whirled and capered, the theme repositioning itself from section to section.

The central movement is the dark heart of this piece, a funereal ode to the Europe that the composer left behind in escaping to America. This is the heart-broken Bartók at his most expressive, with stark colors in the brass and a bleak outlook. The atmosphere lightened considerably in the second dance movement, with its playful stabs at other composers. An echo of the "approach" theme from the Leningrad appeared here, answered by a trumpet tooting the Ride of the Valkyries.

A massive quintuple fugue began, tossed down the range of string sections from violins to violas, from cellos to basses and finally to winds and brass. As the fugue wove itself into an unfurling tapestry, the bright colors emerged for the audience. It is these rich, deep colors of orchestral sound that comprise the unique Philadelphia sound, a warm, encompassing flow of music that is the greatest export of this orchestra. As the orchestra faces fresh challenges in a difficult economic climate, it should be remembered that this quality is precious, and one that should be preserved.

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