Davies Hall, San Francisco
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit – conductor
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Hindemith – Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria Von Weber
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G Major
Louis Lortie – piano
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Ranjbaran – Saratoga
Rachmaninoff – Symphonic Dances, Opus 45
Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Scriabin – The Poem of Ecstasy, Opus 54
The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!
Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
This had nothing to do with Ormandy’s actual demeanor. Up close, he appeared about as dangerous as a Hungarian house-cat with cream on his whiskers. It was that the Philadelphia Orchestra played every note for beauty and caressed the listener. Ormandy paid a price for this. Not every piece of music thrives under a massage from a mink glove, but much of the French and post-Wagnerian pictorial repertory does, and Ormandy knew how to make the orchestra sound fluid and gorgeous at every turn. The bass lines in those years could at times seem lumbering and impenetrable, and Ormandy’s dislike for hard timpani sticks meant that no orchestral climax ever had that orgasmic feeling of breaking through something. Instead, big moments tended to resolve themselves in a wavelike manner, like Respighi. But the blue-haired ladies were happy and the experience so tastefully sensuous, like lovemaking under the covers, as to be insidious.
So what about now? Before — the eiderdown was thick, the goulash and noodles heavy, and the sheets luxurious. Now, under Dutoit, the lovers are on top of the covers. It is a balmy summer evening. There are whispers in French and glasses of wine on the nightstand. And even one’s bony feet look good in the moonlight. In a word, STILL the sexiest orchestra, but a bit more youthful and versatile. Of course, this is Dutoit’s last stand with the orchestra as its guiding hand. He is himself, shall we say, no longer strictly youthful. I find myself wishing he were. And this visit from Philadelphia wraps up the San Francisco Symphony’s Centennial visits. I’ve heard all of the “big five” orchestras this year. To my astonishment, they are still recognizably what they were decades ago — and in better shape than ever. But now, as then, none can play more seductively than Philadelphia.
Dutoit had the good sense to bring the orchestra’s historic repertory on tour. I don’t think I’ve heard a more deeply felt and intuitively understood performance of the Hindemith Metamorphosis than on Saturday night. The entire piece was dreamy and afloat. The woodwinds found everywhere new wriggles, and it was immensely moving to find real sadness in the andantino. For once, this was not a “punch” piece, though the brass power was gorgeous. There has sometimes been a tendency to drive Hindemith’s music as if it were an off-road vehicle. But Dutoit has obviously thought about each bar and found heart and delicacy in it.
Louis Lortie evidently takes to the Ravel Concerto with similar understanding. There are pianists who will adopt a quasi Bach manner and simply tick along in music like this. But I was stunned to find in the slow movement layer after layer of rounded dynamics, sometimes with soft pedal, sometimes without. This was beautiful artistry, and the woodwinds were simply beyond ravishing. Additionally, in the first movement, the quieter sections under Dutoit were so eerie as to make one sit up with attention. This boded well for the Shostakovich.
Shostakovich once declared that much of his music represented the fear of being arrested. I believe it. In nearly every one of his symphonies there is the sense of waiting for something ominous. I don’t think any composer since Bruckner has gotten so much mileage out of the tremolo. I mention this, because I’ve never heard a Shostakovich Fifth so creepy as the one Dutoit performed for the San Francisco audience on Saturday. The audience sat in silent disbelief as what seemed like tiny insects with feelers brought the first movement to a close. Dutoit captured well, too, the oafish marching of the guards in Red Square, conducting with his elbow in imitation. Not all his mimicry was successful. The slow movement was meaningful and dark, like Vaughan Williams turned into a Stalinist. But it ended with a beautifully gauged diminuendo, seemingly held forever on Dutoit’s upraised middle finger. One did wonder mischievously at the meaning of that… The finale, however, was all one could wish, broadening just a bit more than usual at the end and conveying thereby a greater dose of irony. It ended with a bludgeon.
A remarkably lengthy applause was only interrupted by the orchestra’s launching into a whirly “Ruslan and Ludmilla” for their encore. The perfect confection.
Sunday’s concert reminded me of another happy Philadelphia tradition: the short modern piece that won’t annoy anyone. Ormandy had a way with premieres. They tended to be palatable works by Yardumian or Hanson. This time, Dutoit brought us Persian composer Behzad Ranjbaran’s Saratoga, a celebratory piece dedicated to the Saratoga Arts Center, to Dutoit himself and to the Orchestra. It is essentially an easily understood riff on the musical possibilities of the letters in the words “Saratoga,” “Dutoit” and “Philadelphia.” At times it resembled a bit the energies of William Schuman’s New England Triptych coming together in a hymn-like synthesis of the above.
The Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances were composed for this orchestra. If Sunday’s performance was any indication, they still own the piece. The rendition we heard was considerably more subtle than Dutoit’s Philadelphia recording from twenty years ago. You could hear all sorts of kaleidoscopic piano runs in the first movement — a tremendous transparency — and of course unbelievable power from drums and low brass. The second movement was wonderfully weighty and slithery and the finale danced nimbly, where Ormandy in the past might have lumbered a bit, like a hippo. The nostalgic string phrases towards the end of the piece fell away from the listener like the saddest thing in the world — more irretrievably beautiful with every step taken away from you.
If there is a characteristic to Dutoit’s conducting, I think you could say it is the careful phrasing of anything that might be emotionally touching. Without impeding the flow of sound, Dutoit manages to find opportunities for a little swell here, a little vanishing act there. This is the sort of thing with brings alive a piece like Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It was, simply put, just gorgeous.
And, if it can ever truly be said to be poetic or ecstatic, it is safe to say that Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy will never be more perfectly rendered than it was on Sunday. I recall with amazement the volume level Abbado managed with this orchestra in Carnegie Hall some forty years ago. If it is possible, the orchestra played even more fully and richly here. The Poem of Ecstasy is probably the loudest piece of music in the usual orchestral repertoire, and fortunately that is about all that is needed from it. There is not enough repose in Scriabin for one ever to feel truly sensuous or ecstatic. Underneath its attempts at expression lie anxieties and something disturbing and hard as nails. When the piece is over, your teeth are clenched and somehow you know you have been in the presence of a madman.
Nothing loud would have served as an encore after this performance! But the Valse Triste of Sibelius worked beautifully. Once again Dutoit’s way with hesitation in the pulse of things made the experience more moving than expected.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, I declare Philadelphia the winner! It is about to change direction once again under a new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin. It may have its continuing financial problems and occasionally even get lost in the subjective rankings of orchestras you run into in the music publications. But there is no orchestra on the face of the earth seriously better than this one. So break out the wine, put on your best courtly manner and head for the bedroom. As I said at the outset, the Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!