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Philadelphia Orchestra Drive-By

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Rachmaninoff, Piano Concertos 1-4, City of Birmingham Orchestra, N. Lugansky

(released on March 20, 2007)
We are glad to assist at the yearly visits of the Philadelphia Orchestra to Washington, especially with Charles Dutoit at the helm. Well, they almost made it to Washington this year but decided to stop in Maryland for their debut performance in the Music Center at Strathmore, once again sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society. As noted of the ensemble's appearance last year at the Kennedy Center, the sound and confidence level are returning to their former level. Although the turbulence of the Eschenbach era has reportedly calmed under Dutoit's stewardship, with promises that the musicians will have a say in the selection of the next permanent music director, the orchestra's financial situation is far from rosy. While there must be stress relating to those money worries, it did not come through in a sound that was velvety, rhythmically cohesive, and very polished.

The opening selection, the sparkling overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla, seemed intended to announce the orchestra's vitality and strength. The Philadelphians performed the work in a new edition, recently published by Kalmus and edited by David J. Miller, a Petty Officer and trombonist in the U.S. Navy Band (and Fairfax Symphony). Working from a copy of Glinka's manuscript, Miller discovered and corrected several mistakes that had crept into the most often used editions. (Marilyn Cooley spoke to Miller about his work for WETA's Classical Conversations.) With precise and fluid gestures, Dutoit led the players in a clean rendition, digging into the brash opening, giving incisive clarity to the dissected motive fragments in the middle section, and with the cellos giving a glowing happiness to the B theme.

Russian pianist Nikolaï Lugansky then joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto (the uncut original version, of course). Although some ensemble sloppiness emerged in the first movement, after the famous opening theme -- Lugansky rushing ahead, the players not keeping pace -- this was Rachmaninoff that this inveterate Rachmaninoff-hater could love: light on the schmaltz (although not lacking in beautiful rubato) and heavy on the athletic power, a performance that insisted with urgency rather than swooned with fainting emotion. The winner of second prizes at the Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Bach Competitions -- that's a combination that says something about the way Lugansky plays Romantic music -- the ever-formal Lugansky sat with his back straight as a rod, not even breaking a sweat, although the most demanding passages did cause some veins to bulge out in his neck. His technical assurance and smooth melodic line even in the first movement's gigantic cadenza and the outrageous repeated-note and scherzo-like passages of the third movement were impressive.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, In performance: The Philadelphia Orchestra (Washington Post, May 28)

Peter Dobrin, Phila. Orchestra continues neighborhood concerts (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13)

David Patrick Stearns, Gershwin, Sousa play in Shanghai (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9)

Xiyun Yang, U.S. Orchestra Performs in China, in Echoes of 1973 (New York Times, May 7)

Previous Reviews:
December 2004 | November 2005
June 2007 | December 2007 | June 2009
The real highlight of the evening, however, was for the orchestra, in its many-colored, psychologically penetrating reading of the original 1911 ballet score for Stravinsky's Petrushka. In the opening tableau, the Shrovetide Fair had a delightful sense of rhythmic elan, with a childlike wonder at the circus-like, almost goofy calliope section, while the Magic Trick featured the hilarious belching and popping of the low winds. Stravinsky's orchestration in this work is masterful, certainly meriting the repeated study it receives from orchestration students to this day, and all of the Philadelphia players were up to their various tasks. Only the violin section showed a little bit of sluggishness, the back desks often just slightly off from the front ones, meriting more than one concerned glance from Dutoit. The grotesque wrong notes of the Ballerina's Dance and the Waltz and the mechanical hammering of misplaced accents, the rough draft of The Rite of Spring as it were, added to the vivid portrayal of the story.

The WPAS season concludes next month with a recital by cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan (June 15, 8 pm), at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

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