by Michael Caruso
The Philadelphia Orchestra brought its 2016-17 season to a majestic close with a series of four performances of Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3 in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall May 18-21. But for local classical music lovers, it was the penultimate series of concerts that held the most local interest.
Stepping into the breach created by the withdrawal on medical advice of the Russian conductor Tugan Sokhiev, the Orchestra’s conductor-in-residence and Chestnut Hill resident Cristian Macelaru conducted the three originally scheduled performances May 11-13. Despite the short notice, Macelaru kept Sokhiev’s program intact, a roster that followed the traditional overture/concerto/intermission/symphony format that was so successful under the late Eugene Ormandy, the ensemble’s music director for an unprecedented 44 years.
Macelaru opened the concert with Anatol Liadov’s “Kikimora,” then was joined by French violinist Renaud Capucon for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major. After the interval, Macelaru led the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. In all three scores, the Romanian-born Macelaru displayed a firm yet sensitive hand with the ensemble.
He caught the early brooding, almost mournful quality of the Liadov through burnished tones from the lower strings and elegiac solos from principal woodwind players such as former Chestnut Hiller Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia on English horn. There was a feeling in the air of a storm looming just beyond the horizon, and Macelaru caught the tempest’s torrential power through whiplashed phrases and animated rhythms driving straight to its frenzied climax.
After establishing himself in Europe with operas such as “Die tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”) in 1920, the Moravian-born Korngold eventually had to flee Europe altogether with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Settling in Hollywood, he became one of the premier composers of film scores, especially such Errol Flynn adventure classics as “The Adventures of Robin Hood” for Warner Bros.
Like most of his colleagues, however, Korngold reserved the right to use musical material from his film scores as the bases for concert pieces. This is precisely what he did between 1945-47 when he composed his Violin Concerto on a commission from Jascha Heifetz, still considered the greatest violinist of them all. It was premiered in 1947. Heifetz also commissioned Korngold’s Hollywood colleague Miklos Rozsa to write a violin concerto for him. That work was premiered in 1956.
In one final “it’s a small world” twist, for these concerts Renaud Capucon played the 1737 “Panette” Guarnarius that had once belonged to violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. It was Stern who played the violin for John Garfield in the 1946 Warner’s film, “Humoresque.” Jack Warner originally wanted Heifetz to do the playing, but his price was too high. So the job went to Stern, who worked with Franz Waxman on the film’s score that, at its conclusion, accompanies Joan Crawford as she commits suicide by walking out into the Atlantic Ocean.
With Macelaru and the Philadelphians behind him, Capucon caught the lush romanticism of the Concerto’s opening movement through a full-throated tone, immaculate tuning and impassioned phrasings of seamless legato. Capucon and Macelaru took the second movement at a tempo that nearly suspended its motion yet never broke its lyrical line. Together they projected the skittish energy of the closing movement with cinematic panache.
After intermission, Macelaru and the orchestra gave a ravishing reading to Tchaikovsky’s finest symphonic endeavor. They caught the foreboding melancholy of the opening of the Fifth Symphony’s first movement, then moved effortlessly into its faster, thrusting second half. Macelaru maintained the driving force behind the second movement’s lyricism, conjured up the lilting nostalgia of the third movement “Valse,” and brilliantly paced the closing movement to its shimmering finale.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin couldn’t have chosen a more monumental score with which to end the Orchestra’s 2016-27 season than Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor. Composed between 1893-96 and divided into six movements, it’s Mahler’s longest symphony and the longest symphony in the standard symphonic repertoire. Alongside a massive complement of instruments, it also boasts a mezzo soloist, a boychoir and a women’s choir. It fulfills Mahler’s requirement that a symphony include within its pages the entire universe of human emotions and experiences.
Its 35-minute first movement is truly an entire symphony in and of itself. Its second movement Menuetto and third movement Scherzo almost seethe with tart sarcasm under the guise of folksiness. Its fourth movement throbs with solitary heartache, and its final movement glows with the radiance of salvation.
It’s the kind of score Nezet-Seguin conducts with commanding precision in his keeping sight of the music’s structural arch yet while maintaining a deft and delicate hand for eliciting playing of the most exalted emotionalism. He was at his persuasive best Sunday afternoon, making sure that every solo line was given its due without allowing it to break the overall momentum so vast a score requires to make its fullest impact.
All sections of the orchestra played splendidly before a packed Verizon Hall. And, displaying the talents that have won Nezet-Seguin the post of music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, he drew melting lyricism from mezzo Karen Cargill, powerful singing from the women of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and angelic timbres from the America Boychoir.
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