by Michael Caruso
Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum brought its Sunday afternoon classical music recital series to a close June 24. Violinist Bella Hristova played music by Corigliano, Puts and Paganini arranged by Milstein, J.S. Bach and Piazzolla. Woodmere saved the best for last.
The Bulgarian-born and Curtis-trained Hristova’s program was expertly chosen. She opened with
“Three Caprices,” which John composed for the soundtrack of the film, “The Red Violin.” She followed these with “Arches” by Kevin Puts, the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University, my alma mater. Puts’ “Arches” was followed by Nathan Milstein’s “Paganiniana,” a fantasy based on a theme composed by the great 19th century violin virtuoso. Bach’s sublime “Partita No. 2 in D minor” rounded out the formal program, with “Tango” by Astor Piazzolla the sole encore.
Corigliano is one of contemporary classical music’s most accomplished composers. His gift for melody and harmony is unequalled, and it’s never been better showcased than it was in “The Red Violin.” Written especially for Joshua Bell, the music soars dramatically and emotionally delves deeply. Hristova performed the series of narrative Caprices with technical brilliance.
Puts’ “Arches” — two Airs surrounded by three Caprices — is a slightly more dissonant score than is the Corigliano, but it, too, offers searing melodies and riveting thematic development. Hristova caught both its beauty and its energy in equally balanced portions, caressing the ear while challenging the mind.
It takes a transcendent musician who is also a brilliant violinist like Nathan Milstein to heighten the emotional effect of music first composed by Nicolai Paganini. In his “Paganiniana,” Milstein produced a splashy yet compelling homage to his predecessor, and Hristova delivered its stylish bravura with convincing mastery.
Hristova plays a 1655 Niccolo Amati violin — an Italian instrument made 30 years before Bach was born. Of course, it’s no longer strung with gut strings. It uses metal strings. All the same, Hristova played the Partita’s five movements with the stylistic authenticity of a period instrumentalist and the interpretive integrity of an inspired artist. In addition, the generous acoustic of Woodmere’s Rotunda perfectly fit the bill.
The Philadelphia Orchestra and its new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, returned to the Academy of Music for a series of concerts celebrating the centenary of Leopold Stokowski’s appointment to the ensemble’s directorship. It was Stokowski who turned a third-rate regional band into the greatest symphony orchestra in the world during his tenure from 1912 to 1936 as sole music director, continuing through 1941 jointly with his successor, Eugene Ormandy. The Hungarian-born Ormandy held the reins until 1980. During his tenure, the Philadelphians became the most profitably recorded classical music ensemble in the world.
The Academy of Music was the orchestra’s home from its inception in 1900 until the second half of the 2000-01 season, when it moved one block south on Broad Street to the newly constructed Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Although some trumpeted Verizon’s acoustics as almost perfect at its opening, its deficiencies were soon apparent.
Ever since the orchestra left the Academy of Music for Verizon Hall, there’s been a growing groundswell for its return to the old homestead for far more than the annual Academy Anniversary Concert in January. Since the 1990s, the Academy of Music has undergone several substantial projects to improve its acoustics for instrumental performances. That’s why this post-regular-season series of four concerts is so important. Have the changes made a discernible difference? How does the orchestra sound in the Academy? Is a return acoustically feasible and defensible?
Following the tradition of Stokowski’s style of programming, both Thursday night’s and Friday afternoon’s concerts featured the “big piece” before intermission, leaving the sonic showpieces for the second half. On Thursday, the opener was Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World).” For Friday, it was Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C minor” (dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” by Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick) that opened the concert.
Nezet-Seguin’s sensitive ear helped to reclaim the “Philadelphia Sound” both Thursday and Friday. The young maestro took the Stokowski/Ormandy luster and energized it with biting rhythms and dynamic tempi, and the music came alive both sensuously and theatrically.
Could it be that the “Babylonian Captivity” is coming to an end? One can only hope. And what about the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet, both of which have been using the Academy of Music more than in the past? Perhaps some generous patron will buy them the gorgeous Boyd Theater at 19th & Chestnut Streets. Its art deco glamour and 2,450 seats would suit them perfectly.