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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.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Concert Review: Just Desserts

The Philadelphia Orchestra indulges its sweet tooth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Photo by Steven J. Schwartz, courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Sometimes you just get to see an orchestra do what they do best.

On Friday afternoon, the Philadelphia Orchestra offered the second of three concerts under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the 80-year-old Spanish conductor whose specialties include the music of the late Romantic era and the early 20th century. This program of Lalo, Debussy and Ravel displayed all of its performers at the highest possible level. It is also a milestone for Mr. Frühbeck's storied career, as this year marks his 150th appearance with this storied orchestra.

Conversely, these concerts program also marked the Broad Street debut of the violinist Augustin Hadelich, who applied his prodigious skills to Lalo's Symphonie espagnole. This five-movement work is considered a concerto in all but name, but Mr. Frühbeck struck a careful balance between the high-flying solo parts and the orchestral texture. He was helped by the rich, thick sound generated by the Philadelphia players, who indulged in the sensual pleasures of the score but never allowed themselves to become lost in them.

Mr. Hadelich plays a Stradivarius, the Kiesewetter made by the master luthier in 1723. In the bright, slightly dry acoustic of Verizon Hall, his antique box of wood and cat-gut (it ) sung with sweet, yearning tone. Whether playing the fleet arpeggios of the opening movement or the energetic dance of the Seguadilla, Mr. Hadelich sounded perfectly at home, communicating constantly with Mr. Frühbeck and moving his fingers rhythmically whenever they didn't happen to be playing.

The second half opened with Debussy's La Mer. Although this set of three symphonic sketches makes regular appearances on Philadelphia Orchestra programs, it is always welcome. Under Mr. Frühbeck's expert leadership, Debussy's sea pictures had weight and vitality, with taut playing from the percussion and brass accentuating the boom-and-crash of rolling surf and the feeling of being engulfed and abandoned far from shore.

Jeux de vagues was bright and playful, with qualities of dappled sunlight and controlled kinetic energy bursting forth from the strings and brass. Clarity was the watchword here, as Mr. Frühbeck led the Orchestra into the third movement. Thematic fragments and musical ideas from the first two movements rolled majestically forward in Dialogue du vent et de la mer, recapitulated and reinvented by the composer's pen. The skill and beauty of Debussy's orchestration came to a raging climax in the work's last pages, with conductor and orchestra evoking the eternal struggle of winds and waves.

The concert ended with the Suite No. 2 from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. A favorite of legendary Philadelphia Orchestra music director Eugene Ormandy, this 15-minute Suite combines the tastiest morsels from Ravel's neo-classical ballet into a dish that's even better than this city's famous cheesesteaks. Here, the players relished the bright textures of Lever du jour, led with vigor by Mr. Frühbeck, conducting without apparent effort (or the benefit of a score.) The impressionistic Pantomime complete with its famous extended passage for solo flute seduced the listener, drawing the imagination into the mythic woods complete with the god Pan, the piper at the gates of dawn.

All these gossamer textures set the stage for the final Danse générale, a rowdy orchestral celebration in 5/4. With the support of multiple percussionists and taut playing from brass strings and winds, this celebration simply swung. Mr. Frühbeck brought the work into its presto coda, finishing the last pages with a flourish and blast of timpani and cymbals. It was the perfect apertif to this feast of sounds.

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