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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 18, 2014

Concert Review: Underdog Day Afternoon

Alan Gilbert conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Lullaby of Broad Streeet? Alan Gilbert.
Photo of Alan Gilbert by Chris Lee © 2013 The New York Philharmonic.
Background photo of Broad Street © Google Earth. Photoshop by the author.
When Alan Gilbert was elevated as the new music director the New York Philharmonic six years ago, it was recognized as an attempt by that venerable orchestra to embrace change in the new century. This week, Mr. Gilbert visited another orchestra coming out of its own period of adjustment: the Philadelphia Orchestra. In recent years, the Broad Street band has overcome bankruptcy, labor strife and the installation of its own young music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This week's set of subscription concerts featured works that are part of the Orchestra's 40/40 Project, a program celebrating Mr. Nézet-Séguin's 40th birthday. The idea: perform works that have been absent from its repertory for forty years or more. The program, heard at Friday's matinee concert featured two of these pieces: Jean Sibelius' Night Ride and Sunrise and Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, flanked The Golden Spinning Wheel, a late tone poem by Antonín Dvořák.

Night Ride is an innovative Sibelius tone poem, bold in its design and decades ahead of its 1908 premiere . Essentially, it's two movements: a steady, relentless rhythm in the strings that seems to prefigure the ideas of Philip Glass and John Adams, and a slow, solemn chorale of horns depicting a glorious, wintry sunrise.

The Philadelphians, playing this work for the first time in the Orchestra's long history, responded with crisp, clean strings. The Night Ride depicted the gallop of a mount along an icy northern road in the basses and cellos, with repeated notes that must have sounded bizarre at the work's premiere but are now recognized as an early precursor of minimalism. This was followed by the Sunrise, a flood of golden tones in the brass, drawn majestically forth under Mr. Gilbert's steady beat.

Those adjectives could also apply to The Golden Spinning Wheel (1896) one of a quartet of late Dvořák tone poems inspired by Czech folktales. This one's in four movements, a small symphony without a pause between sections. Dvořák is retelling particularly nasty fairy tale here, with the orchestra depicting backwoods mutilation, sorcery and (eventually) true love in paint-strokes of chromatic post-Wagnerian sound. Mr. Gilbert's experience as an opera conductor served to drive the story forward, with bright orchestra colors coming from the Philadelphia woodwinds and strings, contrasting with wine-dark figures in the brass and a repeated sense of perpetual forward motion throughout.

The Glagolitic Mass (1926) has only been heard once in Philadelphia, and only at the Mann Center in a 1991 performance under Charles Dutoit. For this performance, Mr. Gilbert added the Philadelphia Singers Chorale and a crack team of four soloists (soprano Tatiana Monogarova, mezzo Kelly O'Connor, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass John Relyea) plus the Kimmel Center's monstrous Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. The sound of this huge ensemble was massive and robust, both in the instrumental movements that open and close this piece and the choral and vocal music (sung in Church Slavonic, an archaic liturgical language used in church rituals) that make up the traditional sections of the Catholic liturgy.

Janáček followed Dvořák in the great tradition of Czech composers, coming suddenly into the spotlight at the age of 62. This Mass is one of his most interesting works, couching the liturgy of the Catholic Church in the Czech language and at the same time providing the listener not with doom, gloom and the promise of hellfire, but a cheerful, even optimistic account, with chorus and soloists surging over the hard-charging orchestra at the end of the Gloria in a way that recalls the wedding scene in The Cunning Little Vixen.

Throughout this Mass, Janáček's unconventional use of the orchestra sections against each other (particularly percussion and brass) kept the liturgy flowing with a sense of drama and excitement. That atmosphere of palpable tension cushioned the soaring voices of the four soloists, themselves engaging in call-and-response with the Chorale. The organ (played by Michael Stairs from an onstage secondary console) was featured in the penultimate movement with a lengthy solo and low notes that shook the floor. It was answered one last time by Mr. Gilbert and the orchestra, which brought this important work to a brawny final climax.

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