by Michael Caruso
This past weekend’s concerts reaffirmed my conviction that Philadelphia is home to one of the most vibrant and varied classical music scenes in the world. I heard a viola/piano recital Friday, March 15, in Chestnut Hill at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, I took in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Viennese Masters” concert Saturday, March 16, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, and I attended Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Owen Wingrave,” Sunday, March 17, in the Kimmel’s Perelman Theatre. How much more could I have done even in New York or London?
Friday evening’s recital at St. Paul’s Church was the fourth in its series of “Five Fridays: Concerts for the Community.” It was presented in collaboration with Astral Artists. Violist Born Lau and pianist Alexandre Moutouzkine were heard in music by Bruch, Prokofiev, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Ravel, Enescu and Grainger. Although the large roster of composers might lead you to suspect that the program didn’t hold together, it did. The programming was exemplary in performance, proving once again how effectively Astral prepares its young charges for successful musical careers.
Brahms’ “Sonata for Viola & Piano” was the evening’s major work. Composed late in the German master’s career, it offers an autumnal mood delineated through poignant lyricism, chromatic thematic development and splendid structural command. Lau, who studies with Roberto Diaz at the Curtis Institute of Music, projected both the resonance of a cello and the brilliance of a violin with his Carl Becker viola, and Moutouzkine provided him with a full-throated collaboration on the church’s vintage Steinway piano.
Chrisoph von Dohnanyi mounted the Philadelphia Orchestra’s podium for the second weekend in a row to conduct the ensemble in a program consisting of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony No. 8 and Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No. 4. Saturday night’s performance in Verizon Hall was disappointing considering the maestro’s superb reading of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Third Symphony the previous Saturday evening.
Von Dohnanyi and the Philadelphians caught the darkly brooding early romanticism of the first movement of Schubert’s two-movement masterpiece, flawlessly balancing its melting lyricism against its dramatic development. But he chose so leisurely a tempo for the second movement that its arch of structural cohesion came undone, sometimes to the point of less than immaculate beginnings and endings of phrases.
Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony is a fine example of the Austrian composer’s tendency to compress Wagnerian rhetoric into classical forms. To some degree it works while in others it doesn’t. The four-movement symphonic structure was meant to showcase a composer’s command over thematic and tonal development. Neither is among Bruckner’s strengths. His weaknesses include an inability to bring a developing crescendo to climax and resolution without repeating the approach more times than most can endure. Saturday’s performance sounded spectacular, but it fell short of convincing even me, a devout Bruckner lover, that all that excess was really necessary let alone successful.
Sunday afternoon’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Owen Wingrave,” reminded me once again how much of a collaborative process presenting an opera really can be, and how easily one of the three basic parts of that process can undermine the other two if it’s weak.
Britten based his 1967 opera, commissioned by the BBC, on a story by the novelist Henry James, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. It deals with a young man named Owen Wingrave who hails from a family steeped in the military traditions of Great Britain but who has decided not to serve in the nation’s armed forces.
I have nothing but praise for Sunday afternoon’s performers, and George Manahan’s conducting of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra was superb. He elicited playing from his young musicians that was sonically evocative and rhythmically exhilarating. His cast was equally admirable, none more so than baritone Julian Arsenault in the title role.
But Daniel Fish’s stage direction betrayed a lack of faith in the quality of the music and the intelligence of his audience that was nearly fatally distracting during the first act and only a tad less so during the second, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. There was so much busywork onstage around the singers that one had to fight to keep one’s focus on the music and the story it delineated, particularly since there were no supertitles. Britten’s music can more than take care of itself and should have been allowed to do so. At the very least, Curtis should have known better.