Type of Review
This is the review from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The allure of sibling musicians extends beyond novelty and well into telepathy
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was always best with his pianist sister, Hephzibah; they claimed to read each other's musical minds. But Christina and Michelle Naughton, who made their PhiladelphiaOrchestra debut Tuesday at the Mann Center, aren't just sisters, but identical twins, whose musical compatibility is even more keen than their physical resemblance.
The 20-year-old pianists from Madison, Wis., were part of the Curtis Institute of Music's contribution to this Mann season. Though the crowd wasn't nearly as big as for Mon day's opening, the concert will be discussed for a long time to come - and not because Mayor Michael Nutter was the accomplished Carnival of the Animals narrator.
The duo piano medium is hard to do well. Two similar sounding instruments aren't easy to find in some quarters, and those who play them are often solo virtuosi on holiday, which means they pound away, reminding you all too oftenthat the piano is essentially a percussion instrument.
So hearing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra with such astrong sense of the music's specific needs being addressed - the case at Tuesday's concert conducted by Rossen Milanov- is indeed a luxury. Of the two, Michelle (the one in red) had the deeper insights into what lay behind Mozart's decorous piano writing. But Christina (the one in blue) must be credited with the kind of phrasing and sensitivity that so beautifully showcased her sister, and compatibility of sound that clearly showed one piano doing what the other was not.
Beyond knowing how to stay out of each other's way, they fused synergistically in Lutoslawski's Variations on a Theme by Paganini with a level of energy and showman ship that approached that of the famous Labeque Sisters.
Even the best student talents grow reticent in the face of a large audience. But these two played with a freedom of execution and expression that no doubt came with the security of so clearly knowing the talent at the other keyboard.
Ending the concert with Carnival of the Animals was an inspired concept, but not a great idea. The piece's 14 short episodes, played both by two pianos and orchestra, are among Saint-Saens' most unbuttoned, resourcefully descriptive music. But the piece's continuity depends on everybody being quick on the uptake - not easy with limited rehearsal and in a space as large as the Mann. Nutter had worked hard on the humorously tortured rhymes and, thanks to some unorthodox rhythms, never let the doggerel verse lapse into singsong routine. He also projected a sense of discovering the humor in the moment, allowing us to do the same.
Contact musiccritic David Patrick Stearns at

I most heartily agree with everything Mr Stearns said with the exception of his comparison of the Naughton sisters to the Labeque Sisters, I think the Naughton sisters were AT LEAST EQUAL to them. I also disagree with his comment about Michelle having deeper insights into what lay behind Mozart's writing. Having heard both of them almost every time the performed at Curtis, I think these are roles they play and that Christina could have done the same. They could have reversed roles and no one in the audience including the critics would have noticed the difference!
I have additional comments one is that the Naughton sisters played, all three pieces in the concert from memory! The other is that I spoke to several orchestra members after the concert who were very impressed by the Naughton sisters and one even commented that their performance of the the Mozart Concerto for two pianos was the best that that person had ever heard!

Walter Waugaman
Posted on 3 Jul 2009, 4:46 AM
I enjoyed the concert very much. When the orchestra came out on stage, I noticed that there was only about 2/3 the normal compliment of players, however, this turned out to perfect for the music performed in this concert in the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center. The two Haydn symphonies, No. 16 and No. 49 were new experiences for me. I thought the orchestra played them both well with ideal balance between all of the instruments with exception of the harpsichord which was barely audible. All other aspects of the orchestra's performance such as intonation, entrances and etc. seemed just about perfect to me.

Wendy Warner's performance set a very high standard that seemed to me to be equal to that of one of her teachers Mstislav Rostropovich whom I heard perform this same concerto in Verizon Hall about five or six years ago. I thought her playing was awesome just as I remember hearing her when she was in Curtis only more so!
Posted on 27 Sep 2009, 10:17 PM
This review was published in the Saturday October 10, 2009 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. This is a review of the Thursday October 8, 2009 performance. I attended the Saturday October 10, 2009 performance. I emphatically agree with all of the reviewer's comments. There was one detail that I heard that is not mentioned in the review and that is concerning Elizabeth Masoudnia's first English horn solo. The solo began and ended with a series of phrases which at the end of each she paused while an echo was played by an off-stage oboe played by Peter Smith helping to create the "allegorical portrait of innocence" described in the review below. Personally, I think that this was the best performance of all three compositions on the program that I have ever heard! I received enough spiritual lift from this concert to last me until next Saturday's concert!

Walter Waugaman

Orchestra and pianist show interpretive power
By David Patrick Stearns

The money difficulties of the last year, the reportedly poor ticket sales of last week, and the future questions of musical leadership all seemed distant if not vanished -- however momentarily -- when the Philadelphia Orchestra played unusually fine performances of mostly standard repertoire with the smashing young pianist Yuja Wang for an audience that knew what it was hearing and loved it.

The program (which also opens the orchestra's Carnegie Hall season on Tuesday) showed Barber, Berlioz and Prokofiev in fascinating early states of creative consolidation -- and showed how interpretations can radically change the way music speaks, or even whether it speaks.

Barber's Adagio for Strings, for one: Its 1938 world-premiere performance by the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini (recently published by Pristine Classical) has faster-than-usual tempos, a vital pulse, and a climax that feels almost sexual -- a rhapsodic love song with grave, intense undertones.

Seventy years on, musicians and audiences want to savor the music's loveliness in slower tempos that, with the lush Philadelphia Orchestra sonority under chief conductor Charles Dutoit, turn the piece into a secular requiem. Can two opposing approaches be right? Yes, when backed with conviction.

In fact, some sort of conviction test should be required by law for anyone taking on the main piece on Thursday's program, Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, which has so much performance mileage as to be a near-death experience in all the wrong ways.

The biggest problem in this symphony is the long third movement.?The music's dialogue of shepherd pipes and distant thunder is a major momentum-killer in most performances I hear. Though Dutoit's Berlioz hasn't the verge-of-madness voltage of his deceased mentor Charles Munch, the third movement couldn't have been more cunningly paced -- with Elizabeth Masoudnia's English horn solos creating an allegorical portrait of innocence in eloquent contrast to the piece's lurid depths.

The nastier music elsewhere in the symphony always makes an impression, but with Dutoit it takes on a three-dimensional sense of motion. He took the last movement's "fugato" up a notch with a thin, strange, utterly arresting timbre that was clearly achieved by having the strings bow closer to the bridge of the instruments -- but with a shading I'm at a loss to dissect. Is it in the score? Does it matter? If you want to be a stickler for Berlioz's wishes, import an obsolete ophicleide from the nearest museum (which the composer requested and Dutoit reportedly likes, but that didn't make it to the Kimmel Center on Thursday).

Soloist Yuja Wang, the Curtis Institute's latest contribution to the international pianist circuit, showed her sense of adventure by braving Prokofiev's difficult, unconventional Piano Concerto No. 2. She can give Prokofiev the customary metallic edges demanded by his popular Piano Concerto No. 3. But in the haunting opening movement of the second concerto, she was languid, revealing shades of orientalism with much seductive ambiguity. This sense of musical ownership wasn't bound to last in this oddball piece, whose third movement perversely shows the composer (a distinctive melodist) writing spans of music with emphatically unmelodic motifs. You want to tell Prokofiev, "Grow up already!" Luckily, he did.

Fresh phrase readings are only the most visible aspect of Wang's art. More important, she presents a cogent, logical big picture of everything she plays -- hinge moments in the music get special attention -which is a godsend in something this discursive. The concerto also encourages superficial excitement with its velocity of notes. Wang played as though she didn't know how difficult it was -- and didn't need to know.?

Posted on 12 Oct 2009, 1:32 AM
All around wonderful performance - went home humming some of the melodic themes of the last movement of the Brahms piano concerto.

I agree with Peter Dobrin's review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 10-03-09 below.

The Philadelphia Orchestra now has a compelling, if regrettable, story line: Finances are a mess, but it plays great.

The orchestra advanced that narrative with new details Thursday night, arguing in effect that the beauty of which it is capable outstrips the financial turmoil by several degrees of severity.

This seems to be a time of reckoning, and as if on cue, Charles Dutoit's program of Brahms and Bartók laid open several critical issues. After a summer of playing with variable precision and commitment under other conductors, the orchestra is more than ever dependent on podium direction. Dutoit is having a cumulative beneficent effect. And when he's here - along with a small number of other conductors - the ensemble is magically tight and assured.

But Dutoit's authority is limited. He's not music director; he does not have a hand in personnel matters. If, in fact, this is a time for truth-telling, you had to acknowledge in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 that certain individual voices in the orchestra are not what they should be in terms of precision or charisma.
The ensemble was impeccably blended. But the horn solos that echo throughout the piece, for instance, should be more than merely fine. They should take your breath away.

The extended cello solo at the opening of the third movement can make you weep, and while it was perfectly executed by principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni, technical triumph is not the only thing you want here. Individuality of orchestral solos defines greatness just as much as blended ensemble, and here it was in short supply.
Personality was abundant at the keyboard. It's safe to say there is no pianist around remotely like Yefim Bronfman. Labor doesn't seem to ever enter the equation; he is simply everywhere, instantly and all the time. And he does it with none of the narcissistic visual drama, the bang and the flash, of some others.

If he's a strongman, he is also a poet - or at least, he can be. There were moments when a slight matter-of-factness crept into his playing, but he says what he wants expressively and in a completely involving way. When the recapitulation arrived in the first movement, you realized, retroactively, that you really had been to a different place.

Dutoit coupled the Brahms with a frequent visitor, Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin, this time in the complete version that beautifully conveyed the pantomime's violence and bankrupt morals with searing trombones and a lurid bassoon solo. You could be spooked by the content while still being grateful for a cultivated delivery. It was a little bit like being read the police blotter by Alistair Cooke.
Posted on 12 Oct 2009, 1:47 AM
Loved the whole program. As usual the quality of the performance of all participants was high. Of particular note was Elizabeth Zharoff the new soprano in the masters opera program.
Posted on 25 Oct 2009, 11:41 PM
These excerpts from David Patrick Stearns' review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 10-24-09 and especially the last sentence express my thoughts about this concert.

The Italianate qualities of Rossini and Mendelssohn were intelligently differentiated: The former had a sense of the pit-orchestra scale for which the music was conceived. Phrases were clipped but amiably inflected, without the extraneous cuteness that trivializes the music.

Mendelssohn can seem like a musical chameleon - Scottish one minute, Italian the next - though not with Gatti, who firmly rooted the music in the refined classicism of Mozart. With less-driven tempos than what's usually heard, Gatti revealed an only somewhat refracted version of the composer's Midsummer Night's Dream manner. With less-driven tempos, normally glossed-over pockets of music revealed themselves. Were cuts restored? It felt that way. With a solidly conceived tempo scheme, each event had its due while keeping everything in balance. Nothing dragged.

Initially, Gatti appeared to paint himself into a corner: Having reached what seemed like peak saturation with the orchestra's string sound in the first movement, how could the rest not be anticlimactic? Yet the sound picture grew in scope and intensity without curdling into strident overkill. This was Brahms of utmost seriousness: No postmodern observation, no school of performance, just whatever it takes to achieve maximum meaning without wringing the piece dry.

Principal players seemed drawn into that spirit: Incidental solos by hornist Jennifer Montone, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, and concertmaster David Kim exuded nobility without pretention. The experience was so abundant, you didn't want to hear anything else for a good while.
Posted on 26 Oct 2009, 3:27 AM
I agree with most of Peter Dobrin's review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 10-17-09. In addition to his comments in the review, I noticed that not only the Schumann Symphony No. 1, "Spring," but all of the works in the program were played "straight tone" ie., without vibrato. I thought this worked well in everything except the Schumann symphony. Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole program.

By Peter Dobrin

Roger Norrington at the Philadelphia Orchestra is a bit like the substitute teacher who catches you by surprise one day. First, you find that he's moved everything around. And then, when he makes his first sound, he's using phrases you've never heard before. Doesn't he know how things are done around here?

Of course he does. But you don't import the conductor who founded the London Classical Players unless you're expecting new ideas. Or in this case, old ones. Norrington is known for his advocacy of period instruments and historically correct instrumental techniques, and although there's a limit to what he can do in a week with the Philadelphia Orchestra - an organism of very 20th-century sensibilities - it's salutary for the orchestra to stretch itself, as you could hear it doing yesterday afternoon in a program of three works (all in B flat major) by Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann.

The Schumann, the Symphony No. 1, "Spring," was not an enormous success. Norrington banished vibrato from the strings, as is his wont, and the lean and clipped sound might have done good things for clarity. But what was lost in terms of warmth was substantial. He sometimes restricted his number of beats per bar in the first movement, which made the kinds of connections between phrases he might have been seeking, but left a lot of detail untended.

Norrington is not exactly Mr. Fix-it in performance. His gestures are basic, and he stops conducting at certain points, presumably to encourage chamber music-like interactions among the players. That worked in Mozart's Bassoon Concerto, K. 191, with an orchestra of fewer than two dozen players, where shared ideas fired like synapses around the ensemble. Hornist Jeffrey Lang was particularly elegant in the way he wove his sound into those around him. Principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa was a more than respectable soloist, nimble and legato if not brimming with personality.

Norrington's contributions to Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 were the most rewarding on the program. He heightened drama by slowing the "adagio" introduction and brightening the "allegro vivace" that followed. Don S. Liuzzi used hard, small mallets to get a sound more like a snare-drum roll than the resonant thud he usually gets with his timpani. The second movement, marked "Adagio," was faster than I've ever heard it, which changed its usual saunter into something more jubilant. If the fourth movement remained to be worked out, the dynamics and accents of the third were so effectively deployed they made you grateful to hear it expressed in somebody else's odd, unexpected way.
Posted on 26 Oct 2009, 4:18 AM
I agree with everything in this review. - Walter Waugaman

Posted on Sat, Oct. 31, 2009

Led by Jurowski, the orchestra steps up its game
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
While the leadership of the Philadelphia Orchestra has been getting its fiscal and administrative house in order, the ensemble has had its own work to do. Up to this point, musical standards have generally held steady. Thursday night, however, the group was in a different state altogether.
In a program of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev that looked promising but hardly assured any particular outcome, the orchestra soared to a level of sculpted detail, exactitude, and nimble expressiveness that functioned as the next step in its evolution.
It appears that conductor Vladimir Jurowski has gathered a stalwart following from his previous three visits: Though competing with Game Two of the World Series, the concert was one of the best-attended this season, filling 80 percent of Verizon Hall.
Moreover, with Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto on the first half, listeners had an easy chance to bolt after intermission in time to see (as it turned out) the Phillies lose. Yet they stayed for Prokofiev's knotty and relatively obscure Symphony No. 4 in its expanded revision.
The orchestra was operating on such a high level, on so many different levels, that you really had to question the accepted wisdom that music is a subjective matter. There was no way to argue, for instance, with the marvel of an ensemble sound that changed with the repertoire. Many conductors claim the ideal, but few actually realize it.
In Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique, an early work (Op. 3) of stunning orchestration that shares some of its language with The Firebird, the orchestra had on its most luminous and velvety persona - that traditional famed richness. Fine gradations of dynamics and delicate hybrid instrumental doublings gave the score a three-dimensional quality. The orchestra matched Jurowski's body language phrase for phrase: dancelike and flowing, or rigid and astringent. Phrasings were deftly attached as ideas moved from one instrumental section to another.
An entirely different sound infused the Prokofiev - actually, at least two sounds, growing from the opposite poles of strident and caressing. Paradox was at work here; the greater the chances Jurowski took, expressively speaking, the tighter the ensemble grew. Without exception, each solo player bloomed in his or her moment. Bass drummer Christopher Deviney, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, hornist Jennifer Montone, trumpeter David Bilger, and trombonist Nitzan Haroz were not only adroit, but also notably individualistic.
A concerto is not normally the site of a conductor's great contribution, but this Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was completely rebuilt from the ground up. Jurowski took the opening as an unusually quick gust. Violinist Sergey Khachatryan countered by playing the solo exposition slowly and quietly personal. He's got a sweet tone, an inner glow, and his untraditional way with phrasing and tempos verged on revelatory.
But Jurowski made it about the orchestra. He solved the many little ensemble glitches that somehow have become ingrained in the piece despite how often it is played. The second movement was not bogged down with the misconception that it is a slow, sacred text. This was a Tchaikovsky concerto taut and powerful and shaped by the spirit of reinvention - in the end a symphonic poem that asserted a great deal more sophistication than mere subservience to the soloist.
Jurowski made this orchestra sound like the highest form of itself. There's nothing subjective about that notion - nor, in this protracted season of music-director hunting, does anything else matter.
Posted on 4 Nov 2009, 8:18 PM
1. The Second Student Recital of October 14
Of particular note were the Berg String Quartet, Op. 3 which was excellently performed by Bryan Lee, Joel Link, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Camden Shaw and likewise the Beethoven Trio Op. 70, No. 1 by Ji-Won Song, Branson Yeast and Andrew Hsu.

2. The third Student Recital of October 16
Loved the whole program of the third Student Recital of October 16 which was presented by the Vocal Studies Department. As usual the quality of the performance of all participants was high. Of particular note was Elizabeth Zharoff the new soprano in the masters opera program.

3. The fourth Student Recital of October 19
Once again the quartet consisting of Bryan Lee, Joel Link, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Camden Shaw gave a superb performance of the Beethoven Quartet No. in C, Op. 59, No. 3 ("Razumovsky").
Posted on 4 Nov 2009, 8:32 PM
I agree completely with this review.

Posted on Fri, Oct. 30, 2009

Curtis season opens gloriously to discerning ear
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Nights like the one the Curtis Institute of Music had Tuesday - in which everything is going right and everyone in the room seems to feel it - are dear in the life of arts institutions, especially in tough times. The Curtis orchestra, in its first concert of the season, played with a magnificent assuredness. Much of the city's arts and civic leadership was in Verizon Hall, buzzing about the school's new dorm and orchestra rehearsal hall quickly taking shape a few blocks away.
And you couldn't help noticing that while all this spoke gamely of the future, in the audience were teachers such as Eleanor Sokoloff, charismatic Curtis piano pedagogue for nearly 75 years and living evidence that its new leadership still values the conservatory's lineage.
Of course, none of this would have mattered had the level of playing not been so high. JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, brought clarity to the Violin Concerto of Behzad Ranjbaran, order to Strauss' Don Juan, and, to Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, a surprising and lucid reanimation.
I never tire of hearing Sheherazade, in part since I don't hear it much anymore. Once a staple, it now shows up less often in concert halls. The work's youthful narrative is ideally suited to this orchestra; it asks for virtuosity, and the ensemble repays it in the form of ecstasy.
Falletta's interpretation was self-effacing. She provided a stable framework of tempos, occasionally veering away for expressive purposes, but mostly leaving individuality to unfold in the dozens of instrumental solos. William Short was not merely technically all there in the work's famous dancerly bassoon solo, but also highly individual in a way that would be notable even in a professional setting. Clarinetist Ruokai Chen placed a subtle elongation in tempo at the top of a run, transforming an excerpt lick into an artistic statement. All throughout the piece, concertmaster Joel Link, a fourth-year student, projected warmth and stability in notoriously treacherous solos.
Don Juan had great structure, though in the details was perhaps slightly prim and proper for the subject at hand. But Falletta was just right in Ranjbaran's Violin Concerto. The Tehran-born Juilliard composer might be thought of as music's magical realist. In this work - as well as in his "Persian Trilogy" - a passage can be going along at midlevel dissonance when, as if a light suddenly refracted, the orchestration turns lustrous and the harmonies seductive. You might hear film scoring in his sound. The composer himself identifies Persian modes and rhythms as inspiration, as well as the kamancheh, a traditional Persian bowed instrument.
But for the soloist, the more relevant cousins in the repertoire to this 2003 work are Barber and Korngold, whose spirit Elissa Lee Koljonen evoked in the formidable passage work. Koljonen, a 1994 Curtis graduate who studied with Aaron Rosand, is also Mrs. Roberto Diaz, wife of the director of Curtis, but her appearance on this program was no concession to family ties. She is apart from all her connections a violinist of immense presence. Technique is a given, but with a purpose. Case in point: the many fleeting moments of bending pitch and changing tone for expressive purposes. This was a knowing audience, so it might have detected her exquisite timing and precision. Or perhaps all it sensed was a violinist of considerable soul.
Posted on 5 Nov 2009, 10:34 PM
I thought this review by J.P.S. was accurate.

Added note: She broke a string, I think it was the A string, near the beginning of the last movement and had to stop. She left the stage followed by the conductor and both returned as soon as she had re-strung an tuned and she and the orchestra resumed at the beginning of the movement as though nothing had happened. She was very professional about the whole event did not let it affect her playing and there were several standing ovations at the end!

Posted on Sat, Nov. 7, 2009

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Notes don't ring so much as they tend to be wrung from Dvorak's Cello Concerto: It's the grandest piece of its kind and solo cellists can't help loving it to their (and sometimes the audience's) distraction.
Only when the concerto is performed by somebody as original and charismatic as Alisa Weilerstein, the Philadelphia Orchestra's featured soloist yesterday at the Kimmel Center, does one realize how much greater the overall effect can be when individual notes, typically punched and vibrated to the far reaches of the auditorium, have their identity subverted to a larger idea.
The increasingly mature Weilerstein (who is 27 but incongruously looks 14) has always been one to make you momentarily forget past performances in the most standard of repertoire. What she accomplished yesterday was like a throwback to the pre-World War II years of Emanuel Feuermann, when any Dvorak soloist was likely to be the orchestra's principal cellist (Yo-Yo Ma's stardom is a historically recent phenomenon) and more inclined to play as a less competitive team member.
So it was yesterday. The first movement's long introduction, led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian, seemed expressively uncertain right down to the horn solo. Yet Weilerstein's entrance had something of a galvanizing effect on the overall ensemble; everyone suddenly knew exactly what they were about. The horn/cello interplay had much to say. Even more revealing was Weilerstein's third-movement duet with associate concertmaster Juliette Kang. Dramatic contrast wasn't lacking in the least; the music takes care of that just fine.
The concerto's solo writing can seem like a long trudge when cellists try to achieve an endlessly evolving Wagnerian sense of line. Somewhat in the spirit of the early-music movement, Weilerstein delivered smartly molded episodes, each building on the last, creating a series of emotional incidents that contributed to the whole.
A less resourceful cellist could seem to dither; Weilerstein was the opposite. That was partly thanks to her youthful energy, partly due to a technique that gives transparency to every expressive intention. Purely from a technical standpoint, Weilerstein was almost shockingly accurate in her pitch, particularly in upward leaps that are almost never played spot-on.
Carl Nielsen's 1922 Symphony No. 5, absent from the orchestra's subscription concerts for 17 years, is a gem in the 20th-century literature and again illustrated Oundjian's continued growth from a tasteful, efficient conductor to a genuinely interesting one. Orchestra musicians don't always like Nielsen because this tough, dense music makes them work like the devil in ways that the audience never hears enough to appreciate. But the Symphony No. 5 is a model of clarity from concept to orchestration.
Oundjian appears to have a special relationship with the piece, not just because the struggle for domination among the piece's moving parts had such covert drama. His attention to the many details illuminated the strangeness of the music - a quality that keeps its post-World War I program from turning into a mere musical morality play. While his Nielsen definitely has an edge, much beautiful music-making was apparent among the individual sections (the Charles Dutoit effect?), though the beauty was never an end in itself.
So what was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte overture doing in such company? Particularly in such a cursory performance? Its fugal writing prepared your ears for similar technical feats that lie at the soul of Nielsen's symphony.
Posted on 8 Nov 2009, 10:51 PM
A comfort-level concert with Denève and favorites.
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Stéphane Denève is not what you could call a high-impact podium presence.
He led a perfectly pleasant concert Thursday night. The Paris Conservatory-trained conductor does nothing extreme, nothing exaggerated - a strategy that works in getting the Philadelphia Orchestra to a high comfort level, particularly in repertoire it knows well.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, for instance, doesn't play itself. But a little guidance gets a lot of sound. The punch and exhilaration you might have heard? That's Tchaikovsky.

In a program of favorites, you would have been justified in yearning for a more emphatic declaration of musical values.

James Ehnes provided some. The Canadian-born, Juilliard School-trained violinist played the Barber Violin Concerto, which, though a staple, has been tucked under the banner of a rather half-hearted citywide nod to the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Ehnes is a wonderfully musical player. He found expressive meaning in nooks and crannies of the first movement that usually go overlooked. He's got a gorgeous tone (though, from a first-tier seat new to me, it didn't come across as a large sound).

He'll be better served in the third movement, the "presto in moto perpetuo," if Denève and the orchestra can establish greater exactitude in a repeat of the program tonight. As it was, the ensemble was sometimes like two hands of a pianist hitting the keyboard a split second apart.

Denève expanded the usual "March" and "Scherzo" from Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges by surrounding them with the less-known other four movements of the suite. The orchestra was appropriately tart, and the more luxuriant orchestrations were even more satisfying.

A little coaching from Denève would have benefited some of the wind solos in the Tchaikovsky. Why is it that principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales is often left to stake a claim to virtuosity all on his own? If there was a strong statement in the first movement, it came in the idea that repose had a place as counterweight to electricity. I'm not sure it worked - too many slack stretches - though it did expose some detail you don't always have time to appreciate.
Posted on 15 Nov 2009, 4:30 AM
Posted on Fri, Nov. 20, 2009

Eschenbach goes deep into Mahler's Seventh

By David Patrick Stearns

Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Christoph Eschenbach saved the strangest for last in his complete Mahler symphony cycle with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
After the folksy tunes and nature description of Mahler's first four symphonies, the orchestral apocalypses of the fifth and sixth, the dizzy-making gargantuanism of the eighth, and elegiac lyricism of the ninth and 10th, the nocturnal but discomfiting Symphony No. 7 arrived on Wednesday under ex-music director Eschenbach.
The symphony perversely withholds melody in much of its 90-minute duration, passing through vague dreamscapes of Viennese waltzes and plaintive children's songs, seeming to arrive at the doors of heaven but never crossing the threshold. In the end, Mahler's craziest-ever finale goes into the Charles Ives Zone, the music stuffed with seemingly everything he could think of, and in interruptive, truncated ways. Leonard Bernstein heard it as a portrait of 19th-century culture crumbling before our ears. As usual with Eschenbach, the matter was not so simple.
Typically, Eschenbach clearly gives his position at any given turn in Mahler symphonies, but on Wednesday some of the pieces hadn't yet locked into place. Though warmly received by the audience, the orchestra's playing lacked its usual confidence, the first movement starting with uncertainty and taking time to find its legs. The tempos seemed somewhat undifferentiated; in fact, there was actually plenty of variety that wasn't obvious because the chosen speeds projected only middling degrees of emotional underpinning.
Occasionally, lethargy was apparent, but so was a solid interpretive framework. Rather than unfolding it with a predominantly linear sense of counterpoint, Mahler built the symphony in recurring heterogeneous blocks that Eschenbach treated as organic entities. When returned to, these entities had markedly different tempo and character, as if having morphed while absent. Such touches contributed to the overall musical narrative - crucial in a symphony whose five movements can seem like separate tone poems. In this performance, everything had its rightful place, even the brief mandolin and guitar solos that can be tricky to balance.
But more details, please. Ones that were heard had no-easy-way-out ambiguity (good!). In the opening moments, the solo from the tenor horn with its hard-to-place hybrid sound was even more subtly intriguing - played not in the typically confrontational fashion but with touches of vibrato suggesting a siren call. Though the finale is often heard as a break from the four previous movements, Eschenbach went for an unorthodox summation. Rather than making it a mad rampage through many musical worlds, he went deeper into its pockets of music in ways that overrode the ironic, sarcastic surfaces. Masks, real or implied, were removed.
In some ways, this concert is an instance of how Philadelphia only periodically heard Eschenbach in full throttle - for a zillion reasons, and for no reason that may ever be truly understood, just as the genius of Maria Callas never fully bloomed at the Metropolitan Opera, and ebullient Dmitri Mitropoulos never won over the New York Philharmonic. It happens to the very best.
Posted on 22 Nov 2009, 3:53 AM
Posted on Sat, Dec. 5, 2009

Making others look good

Nézet-Séguin stands out by standing back

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Of all the paradoxes: Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin became the hero of his own concert by ceding the spotlight to all around him, making them look terrific - or better than they normally might.
In this 34-year-old French Canadian conductor's reengagement Thursday with the Philadelphia Orchestra (as the music-director search goes into high gear), nothing was safe or certain, from his slightly strange concert attire (a long dark tie) to the ultra-slow tempos he allowed pianist Nicholas Angelich to take in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.
In a way, Nézet-Séguin showed what life would be like in a typical week with the conductor serving multiple agendas: the soloist's repertoire and established interpretation, plus the cause of modern music, in this case the 1980 Orion by the late Claude Vivier. The main orchestral work was Franck's worthy Symphony in D, though squeezing out a payoff isn't easy. Nézet-Séguin's strengths include solid pragmatism that makes the music work as an architectural entity, fired by less-tangible inspiration that makes you care about the whole package. Even the oft-heard incidental solos in the Brahms took on a new meaning while helping Angelich make a case for his slowness.
In effect, the pianist was following in the huge footsteps of Claudio Arrau, whose slow tempos created needed space for profundity. Angelich isn't there yet. He seemed to have preemptive separation anxiety from whatever phrase he was playing. But thanks to his intelligence and intuition, I'll happily hear him at all points on that road. Technically, he's fabulous; he also manages slow tempos without losing the train of thought.
There's no danger of that happening in any performance of the Franck symphony, which reexamines its thoughts so obsessively (and yields remarkably little by doing so) that you wish for less continuity. Nézet-Séguin went for maximum tempo and volume contrast, plus vivid instrumental colors in sections that cross-cut so dramatically that the performance had an almost cinematic quality. Smartest of all, he defied the composer's Wagnerian tendencies, dividing normally serpentine melodies into discrete sections that had different things to say. That was fine for the first movement, but by the third, orchestra and music were running on empty.
Certainly, Orion didn't lack variety: Its rich scoring allows so many ways to connect the dots that performances vary wildly. In some, it seems to quote from Psycho; others take a swing through Das Rheingold. Balinese percussion is always a strong presence, but Orion has its own nationality with antiphonal echoes, calls and responses fusing East and West.
As someone used to Germanic performances, I was thrilled to hear so much mystery and hard-to-identify sound in Nézet-Séguin's coloristically astute, emotionally anchored performance, from a muted trombone solo to vocalizing that sounded like a Muslim call to prayer but was actually percussionist Don Liuzzi's voice bouncing off a gong.
Posted on 6 Dec 2009, 5:20 AM
Posted on Sat, Dec. 12, 2009

Walker work premiered by orchestra

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

The powerful romanticism that comes with late-period works was unavoidable at the world premiere of George Walker's Violin Concerto Thursday by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Though written two years ago, the concerto was unveiled as the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, long associated with Philadelphia in many capacities, looks forward to his 88th birthday.
You couldn't help but expect something cumulative and wise, especially from this inspirational figure in the African American community. But how about just a straightforward violin concerto? That's what I heard, though impressions are provisional pending more hearings in sturdier performances.

The performance circumstances, in fact, have been a point of contention. A projected Carnegie Hall premiere was postponed when the composer insisted on his choice of soloists, his violinist son Gregory Walker, concertmaster of the Boulder Philharmonic. With him and rock-solid guest conductor Neeme Jarvi on Thursday, the composer could be assured that his musical wishes were carried out.

Yet only the third movement emerged among Walker's best pieces. It's full of intermingling incidents - a fugue, repeated, enigmatic knocks at the door - that spoke to intriguing programmatic undercurrents. The ending had no bromides: The muscular chords kept threatening to reach some conventionally tonal conclusion but never did. Did this train of musical thought simply defy conclusion? Or was there a bitterness that couldn't, in all creative honesty, be resolved?

Emphatic ambiguity - if there is such a thing - is the nature of this beast, and was also heard at the conclusions of the previous movements with piquant, over-before-you-know-it endings. But in other respects, the first two movements were disappointingly similar: Orchestra and soloist took turns with a predictability that set in early, particularly in the first movement. Much of the violin writing was repetitively spiraling sequences of notes. The episodes built on each other like a soliloquy, though young Walker's characterization of the music was so conservative that the music's meaning seemed just out of reach.
he second half had an hour-long orchestral suite of Wagner's four-part, 16-hour Ring cycle assembled by Henk de Vlieger, subtitled "An Orchestral Adventure." Since the Philadelphia Orchestra sound flatters Wagner immensely, one should be perfectly happy with this, especially with hot incidental solos by hornist Jennifer Montone. Laudably, conductor Jarvi builds his big Wagnerian sound pictures from telling details.

But the current vogue for Wagner without voices is growing tiresome. The nature of a suite dictates that the more descriptive Ring passages are heard. But the greatness of the Ring lies in vows, curses, and awakenings in more internal moments. Without them, the suite is like a posh aircraft circling endlessly over the Rhine River (the opera's central setting) - in what becomes an act of institutionalized superficiality.
Posted on 13 Dec 2009, 4:23 AM
I throughly enjoyed the whole program. I haven't heard either Juliet Kang play a solo piece since her graduation recital at Curtis and I haven't heard Thomas Kraines at all since his graduation recital at Curtis and I also haven't heard Natalie Zhu play in several years. Natalie Zhu substituted for Christoph Eschenbach who, I think, handled the role perfectly. I think the program was characterized by a smooth, easy and eloquent performance.
Posted on 20 Dec 2009, 11:25 PM
Here is the review published in the Philadelphia Inquirer today with which I completely and emphatically agree. I must add three more observations.

First, the pianissimo passages in the second movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto were the softest that I have heard from this orchestra in a long time or so it seems, but yet clearly audible in my seat in the first row of the third tier. I would describe them as piano pianissimo (PPP) if there is such a thing. I noticed that it seemed to have a magical effect on the audience. Even though it was extremely soft, I could hear the clarinet just above the orchestra.

Second, Juliette Kang was the Concert Master for this concert and she played the solo passage in the first movement of the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 3 marvelously and with absolute perfection!

Third, the whole concert was played in the baroque and early classical with what musicians sometimes call "straight tone" ie., without vibrato which I sometimes don't like, but the music selected for this program lent its self well to this playing style. So with this and the orchestra's very skillful attention to dynamics, articulation, and phrasing, I didn't miss the vibrato. I think this takes the very best and most skillful playing to accomplish.

I noticed as I was leaving after the concert was over that people were smiling and amicably chatting much more so than I have seen in a long time, even on the sidewalk outside the hall.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Posted on Sat, Jan. 9, 2010

As soloist too, Morales makes it count
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

It's startling to realize how much a single orchestral player can lift up everything going on around him or her, and no arrival has been better for the ensemble health of the Philadelphia Orchestra than that, in 2003, of Ricardo Morales. The principal clarinetist, in fact, may represent the most salutary personnel event of the orchestra's last decade.

An ensemble player, however, does not a soloist make. The skills of the two jobs are not merely distinct, they're at opposite ends of the individuality spectrum. So when Morales took the spotlight Thursday night in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, a question lurked in the shadows: Would he actually have something compelling to say?

Some listeners were likely sold after hearing Morales' unusual fluidity. Others were no doubt charmed by his soft tongue and deftly tapered phrasing. I suppose what heightened my reaction from admiration for a certain kind of perfection to unbounded love was Morales' musicality in a piece so popular that he might have stopped feeling it long ago. Not a note passed between Morales and Mozart that wasn't deeply meant.
You could hear his colleagues creating the most sensitive of support systems. Morales conveys elation in a sound that preserves the pungent, naturalistic tone of the instrument without violating his own innate sense of refinement, and the orchestra responded in kind. There was also a crisp immediacy to the ensemble sound (not always a given in the group) under the direction of Bernard Labadie.

The Quebec-born conductor led what was for this orchestra a slightly unusual packaging of baroque and classical standards. Mozart was paired with Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, and after intermission Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major was followed by Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major, "Surprise."
Familiar tunes, all. This is the kind of grouping you could find at one of the orchestra's June "Best of" concerts. But Labadie is serious about details - dynamics, articulation, phrasing. And his preparation work created what is often elusive when this orchestra wades into baroque and classical repertoire: a convincing merger of modest early-music techniques and that saturated, blended sound that remains one of the most vivid elements of the Philadelphia personality.
Posted on 10 Jan 2010, 4:50 AM
In the 26th Student Recital of January 13th, Masha Popova played the difficult Prokofiev Sonata in D, Op. 94 beautifully with Hugh Sung on piano. I like this sonata a lot and I greatly enjoyed their performance of it. This was the first time that I have heard 2nd. year student Jiuming Shen as far as I can remember. His performance was close to sensational.
Posted on 15 Jan 2010, 7:48 AM
Here is the review from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Posted on Sat, Jan. 16, 2010

Soprano Karita Mattila with Phila. Orchestra
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Richard Strauss penned dozens of orchestral songs, but somehow the Philadelphia Orchestra keeps coming back to that dearly held group known as the Four Last Songs. Most recently, the big gust of Alessandra Marc and the honest voices of Barbara Hendricks and Pamela Coburn have taken on these autumnal, tenderly transcendent settings of poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff.

The much-heralded Finnish soprano Karita Mattila made her orchestra debut with the Four Last Songs Thursday night with an interpretation not likely to please everyone. Mattila has a gorgeous sound, and no troubles with presence. And for a while, that was enough. But as she worked her way through Hesse's glistening spring, waning summer, a soul freed for a night's journey, and Eichendorff's unexpected rendering of death as peace, you started to listen for the singer to knit the music to meaning, and there wasn't much to be found. Her sound didn't change color to emphasize a thought or add emotional complexity. It was hard to make out her words. Even the opening phrase of the third song, the one that starts quite clearly with "Nun der Tag . . .," could barely be discerned.

It wasn't so much that Mattila was cool (which some have said of her, and only sometimes pejoratively), it's that her presentation seemed to say her sonic value was all this piece needed. For many, I'm sure that was enough; for me, t
hat's only half the power of lieder.

On the podium, to the surprise of some listeners, was not Jirí Belohlávek, who was ill, but Juanjo Mena. Without Belohlávek, out went the orchestra's first performance of Martinu's Symphony No. 3, replaced by Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in a performance that, though able, hardly justified itself as a special interpretive statement. It was rather slow, which at least cleared the floor in spots to once again marvel at principal oboist Richard Woodhams, whose sound and personality are more alive than ever. Listeners should savor this moment in the orchestra's personnel evolution. Here's a musician whose unfettered facility always animates a phrase with meaning. Not a note sounds that isn't exploited for its greatest possible urgency. Subtle stuff, but it's the thing that crosses the line from craft into art, and it's rare.

Similarly high concepts abounded in the "Adagio" from Mahler's Symphony No. 10. Interpretively, Mena's vision was more interested in being matter-of-fact than in illuminating any dark corners. That dissonant chord at the climax is probably the closest any human will ever come to hearing a cosmic primal scream, a tough concept for an ensemble that considers pretty sounds always to be the final destination. Still, there's plenty of pretty called for in Mahler's score, and the orchestra, individually and collectively, knew just what to do.

My additional comments:

I don't completely agree with the comments about soprano Karita Mattila. I successfully followed her in the libretto except for several places in the first two songs where I lost my place but in every instance I was able to find it again at least in the next line. It seemed to me that the reason for this was that the orchestra was a little too loud. I didn't notice this nearly as much in the last two songs.

I totally agree with the comments about Richard Woodhams in the Beethoven. There was a statement by the oboe early in the first movement that seemed to set the stage for delicately and finely wrought dynamics in phrasing that the whole orchestra followed afterwards. It seemed to me that the comments about Richard woodhams applied equally to principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales, Principal Bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa, associate principal flutist David Cramer who played principal flute in this piece, principal hornist Jennifer Montone, and the entire first violin section.

I noticed that the tempo in the Beethoven was slower than I seem to remember in under other conductors but I liked it. I think this was probably the best performance that I have ever heard or at least a long time.
Posted on 17 Jan 2010, 6:18 AM
Posted on Sat, Jan. 23, 2010

Mozart masters at the Kimmel
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Not so long ago (it seems), pianist Robert Levin and conductor Nicholas McGegan were the juvenile delinquents of the early-music world.

In contrast to John Eliot Gardiner's rigid righteousness and Gustav Leonhardt's priestly sobriety, Levin and McGegan often seemed to be having a subversive party to which the audience was invited. Musically, that translates into freewheeling spontaneity that's released rather than inhibited by doctrine. Now in their 60s and giving an all-Mozart Philadelphia Orchestra concert, they're much the same, only better, and clearly haven't visited reform school.

Levin departed from the printed program by inviting the audience to jot down Mozartean melodies at intermission, on which he improvised. That's not unusual for him or other classical artists - from the first half of the 20th century. But Thursday at the Kimmel Center, results were geographically specific.

Some 15 years ago when I heard Levin do this in New York, the submitted melodies were quirkier and more original than the conventional solidity that came his way in Philadelphia. But Thursday's improvisation (incorporating several of the tunes) was richer - intense, vital, meaningful music with a Bach-cum-Reger density full of dark corners and sharp edges.

In Piano Concerto No. 18, Levin scaled back the grand-piano sound to resemble a Mozart-period fortepiano. Color was minimized by cool, clean attacks on individual notes. Sound dry? Not with the Levin/McGegan brand of physical involvement: While leaning and levitating, the implied motion of any given phrase was clarified.

The music's seams sometimes showed, but in Mozart, revealing the music's exalted craft is a source of expression that also counteracts the glossy blandness that can set in amid the concerto's sparkling surfaces and circumscribed range of keys.

McGegan reversed the typical Philadelphia Orchestra performance equation most obviously in the Symphony No. 40. Instead of using sound as a primary means of expression, he released the power of the notes with a less saturated tone and his typically impetuous sense of rhythm. There was no need to probe the music for extramusical significance because so much Mozart was heard in any given moment. In some of the best playing of the season, the orchestra was effortlessly disciplined. Woodwind playing was gorgeous.

What a contrast the symphony made with Mozart's incidental music to Thamos, King of Egypt. This is basically a film score, and though good music, it shows the composer reacting to somebody else's drama rather than creating his own. He must have really needed cash that day.
Posted on 24 Jan 2010, 5:07 AM
Posted on Sat, Jan. 30, 2010

Maestro mines players' trust
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
In an era that seems to confuse balletics and bouncing locks with conducting skills, you might not pick out Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos as the podium presence most likely to set an audience on fire.
He has an efficient, businesslike stage persona. His gestures are no more elaborate than necessary. His most important conveyance of ideas, if a program Thursday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra was a fair guide, takes place in rehearsal.
But he is exactly the kind of authority figure to put this orchestra on its mettle, and, to an enormously gratifying extent, his vivid artistic statements were acutely felt by a nearly sold-out audience that gave him a genuine, spontaneous standing ovation. His initial response was to merely look pleased, but, sweetly and modestly, he came out for more curtain calls with clear joy spreading across his face.
Frühbeck, 76, has become an important part of the orchestra's health regimen. The Spaniard is one of a small handful of visiting conductors who raise ensemble standards. He also tends to bring works in which he has singular credibility, which for this program meant his own orchestration of Turina's Theme and Variations, Op. 100, for harp and piano. Played with nuanced expressiveness and a rich palette of colors by principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen and the orchestra's strings, the piece came across as, if not important, terrifically charming.
The stunner of the evening, though, were 11 excerpts from El amor brujo (Love, the Magician), Manuel de Falla's gypsy ballet-opera. The storytelling aspects of the music are hard to discern (even in versions that include the soprano and mezzo-soprano parts), but Frühbeck's meticulous preparation rendered the piece an abstract beauty. He has an ease and confidence - a rightness, but one endowed with deep expressiveness - that, among other things, gave Yumi Kendall's cello solo the space to bloom. His "Ritual Fire Dance" was revelatory - not the unhinged outburst that it has become in pops concerts, but something more subtle and sensuous.
These two works, with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1, formed an odd programmatic jumble - it is Falla's The Three Cornered Hat, after all, that has the sly quote from Beethoven's Fifth - but something about the variety suggested emotional balance. Principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni was soloist in the Saint-Saëns, and if she didn't radiate charisma, she was a careful player with a solid and pleasing tone.
The Beethoven bore more than enough of a personal stamp to justify its appearance yet one more time, and it had the added benefit of the orchestra mining dynamic contrasts for layered drama. Again, here was an orchestra handing over its trust to a conductor so fully that players, the wind principals in particular, could take expressive chances that paid off in great individuality.

Posted on Sat, Feb. 6, 2010

Conductor Frühbeck delights
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Very clever, Maestro.
Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos assembled just the kind of feel-good concert that audiences need during the dead of winter - with a value-added surprise. On Thursday's start of his second week with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he paired two graphic pieces of musical storytelling, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music and Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, and not until the end did you realize the wind writing that begins Mendelssohn's overture is a close cousin (in instrumentation, manner, and chord voicings) to that which ends Sheherazade.
Symphonic programs are rarely bookended so neatly. A coincidence? Not with a conductor as accomplished, cultivated, and seasoned as the 76-year-old Frühbeck.
He always draws stylishly played, coloristically attuned performances in interpretations that aren't markedly original but allow fresh experience. His current visit, however, seems to be on a higher level than before. Also, his relatively recent Bruckner Symphony No. 3 with the Dresden Philharmonic is one of the best in that repertoire. Wolfgang Sawallisch's Indian summer happened about the same age; Frühbeck seems to be in more vigorous health.
The Mendelssohn was its light, fun self with two seldom-played numbers from the incidental music score that recap previous themes in curious, haphazard ways. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale was appropriately fairylike. Frühbeck's Sheherazade hit the seldom-reached Stokowski standard. Though nobody beats conductor Myung-Whun Chung for specificity of storytelling in this evocation of the legend of a woman who spins tales to stave off execution, Frühbeck always found narrative-rooted reasons for the music's thematic repetition (one of its weak points). He was unafraid to conjure some high-Hollywood moments of string-tone lushness, but did so sparingly and thrillingly. Unlike Charles Dutoit, whose Rimsky phrasing can be suave bordering on fey, Frühbeck seems not to love artifice. I'm with him; I like Sheherazade unfiltered.
Incidental solos were full of personality. Concertmaster David Kim smartly varied his vibrato, using almost none near the end as if to convey the storyteller's exhaustion, and enjoyed a chamber-music-like rapport with harpist Margarita Csonka Montanaro. Hornist Jennifer Montone's foreground/background spatial effects were especially piquant. Oboist Richard Woodhams had a wonderful question-and-answer quality to his phrasing. Daniel Matsukawa's rich tone suggested there's a trombone hidden inside his bassoon. As of yesterday afternoon, tonight's performance was announced as going on as scheduled. Good. The public needs this.
Posted on 7 Feb 2010, 3:06 AM
Posted on Sat, Feb. 13, 2010

Orchestra delivers a Kancheli keeper
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Now that we're all having relationships with our iPods, and now that the Philadelphia Orchestra is having a relationship with big retailers such as iTunes and Amazon for its live recordings, concert time teases the listener with a question: Was it iPod-worthy?

Yesterday afternoon's Suite from Stravinsky's The Firebird was lovely enough - expansive, sensuous, reasonably detailed. But I don't know that I need a digital souvenir of it, not with decades of Firebirds competing for precious storage space.

The Giya Kancheli, on the other hand, his "Morning Prayers" from Life Without Christmas - that's a keeper (or should be). Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko led the work scored, improbably, for strings, alto flute, piano, electric bass, and the taped sounds of organ and boy soprano. The orchestration belies the work's delicacy. You're not even sure what some of the sounds are or where they're coming from, so judiciously are these forces utilized.

Like Barber's Adagio for Strings and Górecki's Symphony No. 3, "Morning Prayers" (from 1990) hovers somewhere on the emotional scale between quietly aching and crushingly sad. It references ancient sources - hymnlike material, a burst of baroque strings, a traditional piano tune. Like Thomas Adès, the Tbilisi-born Kancheli sifts through the ruins of Western music, rearranging broken shards to suit his purpose. Yet it's strikingly not of this earth - the sort of spiritual experience you might want to relive in a more pastoral setting, earbuds in.

Barber's Night Flight is like that, too, with its evocation of quiet floating, but the work was pulled after this week's snow clipped rehearsals.

If a work had to be canceled, better that it was the Barber, since I've been keeping company with Louis Lortie on my iPod and was eager to hear him live. His vibrant Mendelssohn recording (playing and conducting the Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2, plus the Symphony No. 5), it turns out, was no fluke. With Boreyko and the orchestra yesterday, his Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 had a similarly strong point of view. Some of the liberties with tempos were extreme, but justified themselves with strong interpretive ideas. If Lortie was out to play the prettiest possible Chopin concerto - piano timbre as wind chime in the second movement, for instance - he succeeded.

Boreyko was a masterly presence in the concerto, having worked a high degree of detail into the orchestra parts. So much so that it made me wonder if the Stravinsky was shorted in this abbreviated workweek, and whether it might grow more potent as this series goes on.
Posted on 14 Feb 2010, 4:26 AM
Excellent performance.
Posted on 15 Feb 2010, 6:22 AM
Posted on Sat, Feb. 27, 2010

A grim 'Year 1905,' a polished orchestra
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
Crowds are massing on the square, where it's cold and eerily quiet. They've come to deliver a petition, these thousands of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. A trumpet signals the advance of troops on the crowds. In the end, hundreds, perhaps a thousand, are shot or trampled to death.
When this is the explicit program of a night at the orchestra, as it was Thursday, applauding is about the last thing you feel like doing. And yet there was no choice, given the polish and power of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit in SC's Symphony No. 11, "The Year 1905."
The verdict of our time is that music is best considered in context - what real-life references does a score contain, what was the composer's emotional state at the time of writing? Such thinking understates the value of abstract musical meaning, but there's no way to experience Shostakovich's 11th without listening for "Bloody Sunday," the central event in the 1905 Russian Revolution. To do so would be like hearing John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls divorced from 9/11.
Yet Shostakovich's world is remote. He manipulates numerous preexisting workers' tunes, a layer of meaning no doubt lost today. Still, the emotional ambiguities and bitter ironies remain, and their potency was heightened by this orchestra's frightening steamroller of sound. Dutoit's eyes were glued to his score for the entire harrowing experience, with good reason. His two hands led impressively independent lives, often tending to different sides of the orchestra.
Beauty isn't the intent of this piece. Still, you had to be struck by the orchestral writing, not to mention its realization. The violent fugue depicting the moment of confrontation was aptly frenetic. A viola-section solo was as muted and mournful as it was astringent. The English horn solo is a long tightrope walk, but, as played by Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, was cunningly shaped for subtle changes in emotional intent.
With a piece that declares its place emphatically at one end of the art-entertainment spectrum, what to program on the other half is hardly obvious. The Brahms Violin Concerto, though, had an intensity of its own with Janine Jansen as soloist. The Dutch violinist has a large, sweet sound, and was as engaging in her interface with the ensemble as in her cadenzas. Dutoit, too, dug into some detailed interpretive work. It did not, and could not, come off as a piece with extra-musical relevance, the way the Shostakovich did. Within its own parameters, though, this was a Brahms Violin Concerto of deep emotional reward.

My additional NOTE: The Brahms Violin Concerto was played first followed by the Shostakovich. The Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 which takes an hour to perform was played without pausing between movements. The orchestra members must have been exhausted by the end of the evening's program! Even though I heartily agree with Peter Dobrin's comment in his review that "Beauty isn't the intent of this piece.", I can't imagine how this work could have been performed any better than it was tonight and I have heard it all five times it was previously performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra! Also, in view of Mr. Dobrin's comment, It seemed to me to be more like symphonic cacophony.
Posted on 28 Feb 2010, 5:02 AM
Posted on Sat, Mar. 6, 2010

Eschenbach, Schumann: If this is it, it's wonderful
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic
If this weekend is Christoph Eschenbach's once-and-for-all swan song to the Philadelphia Orchestra - he's not scheduled for next season and will be increasingly occupied with his new position at Washington's National Symphony Orchestra - his all-Schumann program is easily among his most fully realized concerts here.
The Thursday Kimmel Center performance initially promised a bit less. Schumann's Symphony No. 4 began well enough, showing the composer through the lens of Wagner: Even the most disparate elements were integrated as well as could be into a continuous flowing and unfolding whole. Everybody was reasonably engaged. The performance felt well-rehearsed but not drilled.
Then the symphony's third-movement conclusion - with its taillike transitional passage, similar to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - became charged with tension, leading into the kind of go-for-broke performance of the fourth movement that's not unusual in Eschenbach's work with other orchestras. But seldom do such shifts occur so dramatically in mid-performance: The main precedent in my experience was an infirm Herbert von Karajan in his late-1980s swan song to New York when his Bruckner Symphony No. 8 with the Vienna Philharmonic suddenly leaped up a notch during the first movement and went on to now-legendary heights.
Thursday's alchemy only intensified with Schumann's Symphony No. 2, the concert's second half. Though Schumann is core Eschenbach repertoire - he has recorded the symphonies twice - experience with the music doesn't account for the kind of unanimity of purpose, phrase readings so fresh that the music seemed to be happening for the first time, and a sonic glisten that flattered the music but never gratuitously beautified it.
The most convincing Schumann symphony performances are often the ones with an air of impulse and excitability that can translate into entrances that aren't entirely clean and coordination issues among sometimes ill-fitting parts. Safe, tidy Schumann isn't Schumann - a trait revealed by comparisons with Brahms, whose symphonies mesh with themselves almost perfectly. Among the Schumann conductors of the past, sweaty Leonard Bernstein got it; cool, controlled George Szell did not.
The program's primary curiosity was Overture to "The Bride of Messina," which began with strong, passionate ideas but like much later Schumann, fails to sustain them. The piece is still good to hear and fostered fresh appreciation for the composer's superior symphonies.
Posted on 7 Mar 2010, 5:27 AM
Posted on Sat, Mar. 13, 2010

Vänskä beefs up the contrast in Sibelius '2d'
By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

There is nothing vaguely felt in Osmo Vänskä's Sibelius Symphony No. 2. He feels strongly about it all. When it's fast, it should be very fast. When it's stern or emphatic, the music scolds. Tenderness slows to the point where it threatens to dissolve.
Many listeners will like his way with Sibelius' most popular symphony, which had a long history here before the Finnish conductor brought it to the Philadelphia Orchestra. But to anyone whose ear was set by any of the three Ormandy recordings of the work, Vänskä's interpretation may sound more like an act of perfidy than revelation.
Visits from the Minnesota Orchestra's music director are always bracing, but this performance (heard yesterday afternoon) went beyond. You had to admire some of his control. Dynamics were set to impressively specific levels. A stretch near the end went like this: a laser-beam punch from the trombones, an entire orchestra dropping back to nothing, and then the last few bars in a blaze. The transition from the third movement to the last was a smart rush of adrenaline.
Vänskä, though, does not have an ear for two important ensemble elements. He passed over balancing chords and certain sections to emphasize important voices, and he did not seem interested in being curator of a particular kind of orchestral sound.
His proclivity for contrast sapped the first movement of its momentum. If some listeners might consider Ormandy too prosaic, Vänskä was terribly nervous. Ormandy unfolded inevitably; Vänskä in a series of fits and starts. The school of thought that mistakes faster tempos for insight never seemed more hollow.
The orchestra gave him what he wanted, and some solos triumphed as welcome moments of refinement. In particular, flutist David Cramer and principal trumpeter David Bilger were lyrical relief.
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger didn't make an enormous impression in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 - it's not a piece that invites deep thought - but he had plenty of power and polish. Cellist Efe Baltacigil offered more charisma in his short solos than some other cellists can summon all season.
Vänskä brought as overture Minea, Concertante Music for Orchestra (2008) by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho - 18 minutes of building, falling back, then building again. Its momentum is more intermittent than the rolling steam of Honegger's Pacific 231, but it's a compelling ride nonetheless.
Posted on 14 Mar 2010, 3:44 AM
Posted on Sat, Mar. 20, 2010

Jurowski shows what he can do with Beethoven 3d: A lot

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

All eyes were on conductor Vladimir Jurowski's return visit to the Philadelphia Orchestra on Thursday - or at least enough to fill most seats at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall (for a change).
Since the orchestra began courting him as a possible music director, classical music circles have been buzzing about his breadth of repertoire. His Tchaikovsky can be thrilling, but what about heavyweight Beethoven (always a good barometer of musical depth)?

Answer: The Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), a symphony of such philosophical weight that it seems to be at war with itself, emerged alive, unlabored, distinctive, and intelligent. Jurowski's collaboration with pianist Benedetto Lupo in Schumann's Piano Concerto opened up the thick orchestration to reveal important details, while the pianist's ultra-clear, even classical-era approach wasn't above Lisztian explosions that upped the tension. Brahms' Tragic Overture felt epic with Jurowski's precisely fashioned evolution of string color, even if dramatization of specific incidents slighted the music's architecture.

Not that it's time to join the Jurowski-is-God camp just yet. Even vastly talented artists have off nights and make bad repertoire decisions - as in the lame completion of Schubert's Symphony No. 8 ("Unfinished") he conducted a few years ago in New York in a performance that had few clean entrances. Recent London Philharmonic Orchestra recordings seem one rehearsal away from being extraordinary. Maybe he just needs an orchestra with Philadelphia's artistic bank account - an intangible quality that turns excellent interpretive ideas into greatness.

With basses lined up on risers across the back of the stage, Jurowski maintained a solid foundation to his fast but not driven, crisp but not brittle reading of the Beethoven Eroica. He drew particularly clear antiphonal effects by dividing the violins on either side of the podium, giving the music an even greater feeling of interior activity. Historically informed performance elements included less vibrato, tempos approximating the kind of metronome markings Beethoven favored, and repeating the first-movement exposition (as the composer requested) to enhance the overall form.

All these elements came with a vital sense of importance. Even the ensemble's excellent precision became an expressive entity, the extra clarity of the music's contrapuntal density making the symphony seem feverishly contained within a slim silhouette. The second-movement funeral march didn't go to the existential depths reached by Christoph Eschenbach, but that kind of expression didn't match the lithe ground rules of Jurowski's approach. Neither did the lushness of the Philadelphia strings, which was seldom heard but not missed at all.

ADDED NOTE from Walter Waugaman:

I noticed a number of passages in the second movement of the "Eroica" that were truly piano-pianissimo (PPP). The first violins played so softly that they were barely audible yet I was able to hear them in the first row of the third tier. The first violins played the passage alone except for either the second violins, violas, cellos, oboe, or flute sounded what sounded like the first note of each measure of the passage at the same very soft dynamic level as the first violins. The effect was almost magical.
Posted on 21 Mar 2010, 4:02 AM
Posted on Sat, Mar. 27, 2010

Chicago maestro leads orchestra in Elgar, Mozart

By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Even if you remember nothing else of Elgar's Symphony No. 1, you leave the hall with the great, noble theme of the first movement taking up permanent residence in your consciousness.
The theme is an emotional anthem, but a ghostly one - almost a remembrance of better days. It's also a red herring. This is a symphony with a main theme anyone can hum, and yet a work of such cunning sophistication that no one has been able to firmly establish keys for long stretches of it. Elgar, toying with the idea of the dissolution of tonality, but on his own terms, speaks on many levels.

So does Andrew Davis, 66, sporadic caretaker of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1975, who led the piece Thursday night at the Kimmel Center. The English-born maestro of Chicago's Lyric Opera gets a pleasantly plump sound from the Philadelphians, but is careful about balancing important voices. He's not a big taker of chances, but, as an opera conductor (who shares a conducting teacher with Riccardo Muti), he is often there with some wonderful emotional highs. When that great theme reasserts itself at the end of the piece it's no longer pensive and merely stately but is set off against fireworks. Davis paced its arrival point beautifully.

This orchestra accesses Elgar by way of Wagner and Strauss, and was comfortable enough under Davis in the middle two movements to achieve some remarkably emotional moments. Solos were short but trenchant, filled with individuality but deftly emerging from the ensemble: hornist Jeffrey Lang, oboist Peter Smith, English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, and a hushed-as-"Nimrod" string section.

Davis pared down the orchestra for two works of Mozart, yet the orchestra sounded no less assured for the exposure of individual instruments. The Overture to La Clemenza di Tito (K. 621) was a crisp burst of energy.

Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major (K. 218) doesn't offer the composer's greatest obvious potential for interpretive depth, but with Boston-born Stefan Jackiw, 24, the piece seemed to grow. Passages lurking with etudelike tedium were brought to life when the violinist endowed a single note in the series with his unusually deep tone. His first-movement cadenza was the kind of triumph of personality you wanted to cheer, not so much for its heroism as for a sound so saturated and vibrant it sounded like a living thing. For the close doublings between Jackiw and oboist Smith you could thank the small size of the ensemble, but also Davis, who consistently laid down an orchestral part transparent enough for the soloist to thrive.
Posted on 28 Mar 2010, 2:47 AM
Posted on Sat, Apr. 10, 2010

One for the road: Orchestra tunes up for Asia

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

The Philadelphia Orchestra's spring tour of Asia is making itself felt in the coming Kimmel Center concert weeks, as chief conductor Charles Dutoit blows dust off repertoire that's going on the road, with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Debussy's La Mer making welcome returns on Friday.

Performances were a significant step away from a caliber appropriate to Tokyo's Suntory Hall (or, for that matter, Carnegie Hall, where the program is repeated on Tuesday), though Dutoit's authority with this music was apparent in any number of respects. So much of what happens in Debussy and Stravinsky involves orchestral color, and few conductors project sound as an expressive end unto itself (as opposed to architecture built from individual notes) as convincingly as Dutoit.

His version of the Philadelphia sound is lean, clean, and lithe, with a sense of keen differentiation of sound that came into play particularly at the climax of any given piece. Although Dutoit uses sheer force when necessary, he was inclined on Friday to go for extra clarity in the final movements of Rite of Spring, whose Part Two easily becomes anticlimactic. Intensity was escalated by revealing more of what's there.

In the third movement of La Mer, the instrumentation shift toward the lower brass, always dramatic, bordered on heart-stopping in ways that set off the melody that followed, aided by particularly intense violin tremolo. Both pieces were built on blocks of sound shaped by Dutoit with phrasing and tempo that felt inarguably right. What was missing? A consistency of animation, as if the orchestra was laboring under unusually high pollen count in the air.

The one piece that won't be touring will be missed: Szymanowski's infrequently heard Symphonie concertante Op. 60 (also known as Symphony No. 4) - making its second Philadelphia Orchestra appearance in three years at the instigation of pianist Piotr Anderszewski. Though Szymanowski's choral works have gritty harmonies that anticipate Penderecki, this feverishly dense 1932 piece is as harmonically mercurial as early Prokofiev and layered with as many simultaneous events as Nielsen. It gives so much primary musical information to individual orchestral sections that you might call it a Concerto for Everything.

Such descriptions are complimentary, though it's hard to know why a pianist of Anderszewski's visibility is so attracted to music whose thick scoring is bound to drown him out at various points. When most audible, Anderszewski's Mozartean sensibility was welcome and apparent: In a piece that could easily become unwieldy, the sort of precision and detail he brought to the music acted as a necessary beacon of clarity.
Posted on 11 Apr 2010, 1:33 AM
Posted on Sat, Apr. 17, 2010

Beautiful, if not bold, Beethoven from Ax; polish from the orchestra

By Peter Dobrin
Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Unfailingly genial and totally lacking any sense of struggle, Emanuel Ax's playing is nothing if not equanimity in sound. The pianist is always pleasant. He's expressive, but conveys a sense that to be too expressive would be an imposition on the listener.

He's well liked in the way Itzhak Perlman is, mostly for his musicianship and stage persona of quiet mirth, and for being generous to good causes. In these parts he has extra resonance as one-third of the trio (with Perelman and Yo-Yo Ma) that opened Verizon Hall in 2001, as Thursday night's audience might have remembered as Ax returned for more Beethoven.

This time it was the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and if you'd never heard the concerto played with discovery and risk-taking, it might never have occurred to you that Ax disregarded these potentialities. No great drama came in the long first-movement cadenza; manipulation of phrasing in the second movement was doled out carefully, tastefully; the third showed only a modicum of original interpretive impulses. It was lovely, gentle playing, the kind that makes you lean forward in your seat seeking more, even if in vain.

There was ease, too, in the orchestra - in Stravinsky's Petrushka, of all places. But this countenance was of a different brand altogether, bragging a virtuosity that tricks the audience into thinking it was no trick at all. It's true these players have been working over Petrushka parts in excerpt books since high school. But that's no guarantee of conquest in performance. Thursday's outing with Stravinsky's original (larger) version of the score was almost miraculous for its extremely high level of technique and polish.

That's the Dutoit factor. The orchestra's chief conductor has presented himself as the oracle of a certain Franco-Russian repertoire, and while you may quibble about whether he uncovers certain truths unavailable to other conductors, the integrity of his ensemble work is unassailable. His Ravel Mother Goose Suite offered no revelations, either in reshaping phrasings or balancing voices to yield previously unrealized colors. Cool it was, and neatly packaged.
But Dutoit created a comfortable enough environment in Petrushka to promote exactitude and expressive freedom. The revolution is all Stravinsky's - the unbearably bright hues, the sound of a multitude of instruments quivering simultaneously, the ghostly evocation of a mocking puppet at the end (not to mention the piece's celebrated bitonality).

The impact, though (high clarinets, trombones, and muted trumpets handling contents under pressure, an exposed tuba gliding over the rest of the ensemble) was all the orchestra. These spots and dozens of others never suggested how treacherous this music is, leaving the listener in the glow of ignorance of the best kind.
Posted on 18 Apr 2010, 2:30 AM
I heard all four pieces on the program for the first time this evening: Trio pathéthique by Mikhail Glinka, Sonata followed by an interesting introduction by Matthew Glandorf of the following three early baroque pieces : Undcecima by Dario Castello (1621-44), Sonata a Tre by Antonio Bertali (1605-69), Sonata ("La Monica") by Biagio Marini (1597-1663). I thoroughly enjoyed the lyrical performance of the Glinka and the quality of the performance of the earlier baroque style of playing without vibrato without sounding monotonous in the three baroque pieces.
Posted on 14 Jan 2016, 8:30 AM