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Philadelphia Orchestra & Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg

Some people came to the Kennedy Center on Monday, November 29th, still expecting the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph "Engel mit drei Flügeln" Eschenbach to play Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony. Wonderful as that work can be, the program got upgraded to Mahler ››5‹‹. (While I betray my personal predilections by calling this an upgrade, the reason might just be that the NSO is planning to play the Rachmaninov 2nd this Thursday, also at the Kennedy Center.) Unlike other Mahler symphonies, the 5th does not suffer from a nickname, though if someone insisted on contriving one, "Life" could be appropriate. (The program notes by Eric Bromberger actually indulged in similar speculations, albeit with slightly different results.) The famous Adagietto of Death in Venice and Bernstein's JFK funeral performance fame is just one part of Mahler taking the listener through the entire cycle of life from the primes of life through loss and rebirth.

G. Mahler, Symphony No. 5, J. Barbirolli
Conducting the Mahler from memory, Christoph Eschenbach—who seems to have settled in with the Philadelphia Orchestra after initial irritations among the Orchestra (which was not consulted when the Management decided on Mr. Eschenbach after he had, in turn, been turned down by the New York Philharmonic)—veered between the analytically precise in his movements and an almost comically animated way of shaking every limb at his disposal at his players. Brass-plated, matter-of-factly, and refreshing were my impressions from the first two movements. The march elements were particularly outstanding, in both meanings of the word. The brazen energy, threatening almost, came out wonderfully at the end of the third movement and made for all the enchanting contrast with the haunting and yearning Adagietto, soft and deeply felt. The pizzicato in the Scherzo was remarkable, and the sole viola plucks reminded one of a mandolin, so vigorously did Roberto Diaz treat his instrument.

Before it got to the Mahler, though, it was Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and the band playing Mendelssohn's E-minor violin concerto. With a tone that struck me, for lack of a worse word, as 'leathery' and a wee bit on the thin side, Mme. Salerno-Sonnenberg, in dashing black- and white-striped vinyl trousers, stayed true to her reputation. With rubato so pronounced it was more a succession of ac- and decellerandi as well as (is "extreme" too strong?) ...significant shifts in volume took the lyrical element right out of the work, replacing it with virtuosity. Some of the effects were, well, effective, but such an interpretation is also vulnerable to the accusation of being affected. (Her particular—or, if you wish, peculiar—interpretation can be sampled on a disc with her playing the E-minor, Saint-Saëns's Havanise and Introduction and Rondo and Massenet's Méditation [EMI CDC-7 49276 2].) The spiccato parts were great, but most of the work ended up sounding like someone driving a car stepping on and off the accelerator. Mendelssohn, however, is fairly indestructible, and a super-charged, willful interpretation can add to your experience of such oft-heard music.

Upcoming performances of the Washington Performing Arts Society include Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (Friday the 10th and Sunday the 12th) and pianist Roberto Cominati at the Terrace Theater. [Update: Roberto Cominati, so I have been told, cancelled his performance and will be replaced by Mr. Lifschitz(??)... though it might matter little, given that the event is sold out.]

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