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Conlon, Grimaud, and Philadelphia Orchestra

Thursday evening the Washington Performing Arts Society presented the Philadelphia Orchestra to a packed Kennedy Center Concert Hall. James Conlon, who conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra on this tour instead of Christoph Eschenbach, did not bother with the filler piece employed for seating latecomers, and taking Hélène Grimaud’s lead, the orchestra immediately lunged into Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto No. 5.

With self-assured poise and great depth of sound, Grimaud was an equal partner to the venerable string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Tempos relaxed and tightened as soloist and orchestra shifted colors. And when Grimaud proved that she had ample force at her disposal, she made sure to avoid all harshness. The orchestra appeared to be listening as much as playing in the second movement (Adagio un poco mosso), supporting Grimaud's lyrical roaming while the brisk scales in the final movement were – thoroughly pedaled – a bit blurry. The work puttered to a halt with superb timpanist Don Liuzzi and Grimaud in close coordination; the flourishing codetta contained a sense of contrast and discovery.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Philadelphia Orchestra's Own Musical Language (Washington Post, December 8)
The second half of the program consisted of Edgard Varèse's Amériques and Ravel's La valse. In extended verbal remarks to the audience, Conlon mentioned that Ravel's tumultuous waltz looks back in mockery to the destruction of WWI, whereas the freshly minted U.S. citizen and Manhattan resident Varèse's work is a forward-looking New York City tone poem. The original version of Varèse's work, scored for 140 instruments, was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1926 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski and had not been played again by the Philadelphia Orchestra since – until Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. (To be particular, Thursday's performance was the 1927 revision of Amériques, scored for ‘only’ 120 and thus a Philadelphia Orchestra “re-premiere” of its new guise.)

Amériques, written around the same time as the disquieting La valse, features the first fire siren in orchestral music. Layers upon layers are built up until everything is in a chaotic, massive cluster ending at a deafening fffffff. As Conlon quoted Varèse: “I don’t write music; I organize sound.” La valse also featured enticing solos by the bar-setting principals Richard Woodhams (oboe) and Jeffrey Khaner (flute). Hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra with Conlon at the podium reminded one of the stability of the Sawallisch era before the musicians' heavy resistance through Eschenbach's appointment. Here's to a new and hopefully positive chapter of the Philadelphia Orchestra's story in the beginning of an extended search for a new Music Director.

The next WPAS classical concert is a recital by pianist Gabriela Montero, in the new downtown venue, Sidney Harman Hall (December 15, 2 pm).

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