by Michael Caruso
Cristian Macelaru guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in concert Saturday, Feb. 17, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. The Chestnut Hill resident led a program consisting of Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, Opus 72b, Henryk Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Opus 22, with Joshua Bell as soloist, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major, Opus 88.
Formerly the Philadelphians’ assistant conductor, associate conductor and finally conductor-in-residence, Macelaru is now the music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.
The most popular of the four overtures Beethoven composed for his sole opera, “Fidelio,” the “Leonore” No. 3 is a masterpiece of thematic concision, tonal architecture and brilliant orchestration. Macelaru caught the dramatic character of the music from its opening chord and then both maintained and developed that musical personality through playing by the Philadelphians that was sensual and scintillating.
Joshua Bell made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under former music director Riccardo Muti when he was a mere 14 years old. He has maintained his hold over local and international audiences since the 1980s through playing that is both dazzling and distinctive. His tone remains a marvel of sweet clarity. His feel for the gentle arching of the melodic line is still flawless.
His command over tuning at the highest range never wavers from the immaculate. His digital technique is peerless. And his emotional commitment to the music has never been more intensely delineated than it was Saturday evening before an audience that packed Verizon Hall and showered him with an overwhelming ovation.
Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto may not rival the Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky Violin Concerti for popular appeal, but it remains a worthy part of the active repertoire in the hands of so persuasive an interpreter as Joshua Bell. Macelaru offered him the kind of expert support once offered by Eugene Ormandy, the Orchestra’s music director from 1936 until 1980. Ormandy was renowned as one of the greatest concerto soloist accompanists in music history, and Macelaru did his legacy proud.
Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony yields a place in the hearts of audiences to no other of the Bohemian master’s symphonies than the Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.” Dvorak’s melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, scoring and structural gifts are everywhere apparent. The music sighs and seethes, caresses and exhilarates and never fails to take the listener along for the ride.
While never losing sight of the forest for the sake of the trees, Macelaru nonetheless never overlooked a single one of those trees. Every one of the score’s treasured details was highlighted, yet each one was securely placed within the overall context of each of the Symphony’s four movements and the work as an overarching whole. Individual solos were given their compelling due, the various sections were superbly placed into focus, and the ensemble as an entire entity was projected with sensitivity and power.
The performance Macelaru conducted was the third of four featuring Joshua Bell playing the Wieniawski Second Violin Concerto. The other three were led by music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who was unable to conduct Saturday evening due to conducting Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City that afternoon. Earlier last week, the Met announced that Nezet-Seguin would assume the post of its music director two years earlier than originally planned, taking over the musical reins in September of 2018.
Macelaru will conduct the Orchestra Feb. 22-24 in Kodaly’s “Dances of Marossek,” Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, selected “Hungarian Dances” by Brahms and the local premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto for Low Brass,” a co-commission with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society welcomed the Smetana Trio to its first performance in the city Friday, Feb. 16. The recital took place in the Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater. The ensemble – comprised of violinist Jiri Vodicka, cellist Jan Palenicek & pianist Jitka Cechova – played Trios by Alexander von Zemlinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich and Felix Mendelssohn.
The program’s principal draw for me was Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio, Opus 3. Born in 1871 in Vienna, Zemlinsky eventually immigrated to the United States and died in Larchmont, New York, in 1942. Although he had many powerful supporters in Europe and was Arnold Schoenberg’s only formal teacher (in counterpoint), his music never achieved great fame during his lifetime and had mostly fallen out of favor by the time of his death. Romantic in style to the end and tonal rather than serial, his music seems to have missed the contemporary boat, so to speak. And yet, this particular Trio abounds in masterful beauty and surely deserves to be performed far more regularly than it is.
Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in C minor, Opus 8, expresses a depth of heartbroken loneliness that almost makes the listener uncomfortable – but gratefully so for its ability to mirror one’s darkest fears regarding the world that surrounds us.
The Smetana Trio gave both scores a two-thirds admirable reading. Violinist Vodicka and cellist Palenicek put their fingers, arms, hearts and souls into their playing. But pianist Ceshova never broke out of a “mezzo forte” (medium loud) dynamic level because she never seemed to invest her playing with the explosive passion the music cried out for. Technical control is one thing – emotional sterility is another thing altogether.
After intermission, the program offered Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor. Opus 8. Next on PCMS’s season will be pianist Mitsuko Uchinda in recital Friday, Feb. 23, at 8 p.m. in the Perelman Theater. She will be heard in Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D. 958, Sonata in A major, D. 664, and Sonata in G major, D. 894. Visit www.pcmsconcerts.org for more information.
Two of Philadelphia’s leading churches will mark the second Sunday of Lent, Feb. 25, with performances of Lenten music. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, will continue its season of Choral Evensongs at 5 p.m. Parish music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway will lead the adult choir in music by Thomas Tomkins and Henry Purcell. Tomkins (1572-1656) lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in English history: through the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and into the first three years of Oliver Cromwell’s disastrous Puritan Commonwealth.
Purcell (1659-1695) was the most brilliant native-born English composer of the Baroque era. He survived the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that brought William and Mary to the joint throne and established the constitutional relationship between the monarch and Parliament that has held ever since.
Earlier the same day at 4 p.m., Mark Bani will conduct the choir of Old St. Joseph’s Church (Jesuit Fathers) in Lenten Vespers. Music by Howells, Kitson and Bergen will be sung, and Bani will perform a solo organ arrangement of Samuel Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings.” Located at 4th and Walnut Sts. in Society Hill, OSJ is Philadelphia’s oldest Roman Catholic Church, founded in 1733. For more information, visit www.oldstjosephchurch.org or call 215-923-1733.