By Michael Caruso
The final weekend of October and the first of November provided me with the chance to make a quick check on the state of orchestral playing in Philadelphia. I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra perform in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Saturday evening, Oct. 28, and also the following Saturday, Nov. 4. In between, I heard the Curtis Symphony Orchestra play in the same venue Sunday afternoon, Oct. 29. Each of the three concerts had its strengths, but only the Curtis performance had no weaknesses.
Chestnut Hill Maestro Cristian Macelaru led the Philadelphians in the second of its two concerts. Having completed six seasons with the Orchestra as its assistant conductor, then its associate conductor and finally its conductor-in-residence as of August of this year, Macelaru is now the newly appointed music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California.
The program’s principal work was Englishman Gustav Holst’s suite, “The Planets.” Composed between 1914 and 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, the seven-movement work has been a staple of the Orchestra’s repertoire since Leopold Stokowski’s leadership in 1934. Stokowski’s successor, Eugene Ormandy, recorded it for RCA Victor in 1975.
Macelaru and the Philadelphians projected the strident thrusts and Roman evocations of “Mars,” the suite’s opening movement, then shifted seamlessly into the more pacific atmosphere of its second movement, “Venus.” He elicited particularly delicate playing from the woodwinds and more than just a hint of Ormandy’s legendary glistening strings.
The entire ensemble responded well to Macelaru’s fleet baton in “Mercury,” offering layers of counterpoint to conjure up flashing images of “Mercury.” “Jupiter,” the grandest of all the planets, was characterized in sound by Holst’s sweeping “big theme” while “Saturn” lumbered ominously. The brass choir was highlighted effectively in “Uranus,” and the women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir joined the Orchestra from offstage for the closing movement, “Neptune,” offering an ethereal otherworldliness tinged with a shivering chill.
Prior to intermission, Macelaru was joined by violinist Nicola Benedetti for the local premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D major. The four-movement score gets off to a gorgeous impressionistic start and ends with a scintillating hootenanny, but its two middle movements are derivative at best and dull when not at least that.
The Orchestra’s principal guest conductor Stephane Deneve led the ensemble the previous weekend in concerts featuring its first performances of Guillaume Connesson’s “Maslenitsa,” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major with Gil Shaham, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Scriabin’s Symphony No. 4 (“Poem of Ecstasy”).
The evening’s highpoint was Shaham’s rendition of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, but even that performance had problems. Not, of course, with Shaham’s playing, He remains one of the marvels of the world of violin playing, a worthy successor to such virtuosi as the legendary Isaac Stern (1920-2001 and who often played this very Concerto with Ormandy and the Philadelphians) and even the nearly mythic Jascha Heifetz (1901-87).
Shaham’s tone shimmered with clarity; his tuning at even the highest and softest of ranges was immaculate, his phrasing was meltingly lyrical, and he projected a sense of romantic style that serenely placed him within the legacy of both Heifetz and Stern as well as securely within the context of their technical mastery.
But Deneve’s poor sense of orchestral texture and lack of the humility required of any accompanist allowed him to nearly overshadow Shaham’s sensitive playing in the Concerto’s intimate second movement. Deneve would do well to listen to Ormandy’s collaborations with soloists. He was simply the best of them all.
“Maslenitsa” — the title refers to the festival that precedes the Russian Orthodox Great Lent — is an appealing pastiche of Russian masters such as Rachmaninoff and early Stravinsky as well as hints of Gershwin and Poulenc. Deneve elicited some solid if not particularly imaginative playing from all sections of the Orchestra.
After intermission, he led a pedestrian reading of one of the standard repertoire’s most sensuous scores, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and then failed to make a convincing case for Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” entering that standard repertoire.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returns to the Orchestra’s podium Nov. 9 to11 to conduct Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with concertmaster David Kim as soloist and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Visit www.philorch.org.
Juanjo Mena, with a little help from conducting fellow Carlos Agreda, led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon, Oct. 29, and reminded one and all in attendance that Philadelphia has two world-class symphony orchestras. In a program consisting of John Adams’ delightful “Short Ride on a Fast Machine” (led by Agreda), Richard Strauss’ cinematic “Don Quixote” and Hector Berlioz’ still-modern-sounding “Symphonie Fantastique,” Mena conducted his young charges with strict control and interpretive integrity. Each of the three scores showed the Curtis Symphony to be composed of brilliant virtuosi on the cusp of professional careers.
Although both the Adams and the Strauss received sterling renditions, the latter with cellist Oliver Herbert and violist Hae Sue Lee as exemplary soloists, it was in the Berlioz that Mena and the Curtis Symphony came into their own. And well they should have done so in this groundbreaking masterpiece. Premiered in 1830, it was the first truly programmatic symphony of the romantic era and a direct and equal successor of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6.
Its five movements conjure up the narrative of the composer’s mad infatuation with Irish actress Harriet Smithson, their subsequent marriage and eventual breakup. Its opium-induced hallucinations are mirrored in sound by Berlioz’ technique of the “idée fixe,” the thematic connecting link between all the movements and a precursor of Wagner’s “leitmotiv.” At first glance, “Symphonie Fantastique” doesn’t sound like a symphony at all, and yet the strength of Berlioz’ inspiration when delineated by a conductor who never loses sight of the forest for the trees is both undeniable and unstoppable.
Juango Mena, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, England, is just that sort of maestro. Although not a single coloristic detail of the sprawling score was overlooked or underplayed, neither did Mena allow any such individual byway hinder the players or their audience from continuing on the path of the highway to the work’s culminating nerve-rattling and bone-chilling “Sabbath Night’s Dream.”
Each section of the Curtis Symphony contributed its own special timbre to Berlioz’ exotic palette, yet each made that contribution as an integral part of the entire texture so that one heard a flawlessly modulated kaleidoscope of brilliant tints and ominous shades.
The Curtis Opera Theatre presents Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” in the Prince Music Theater Nov. 16-19. Visit www.curtis.edu for more information.
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