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Philadelphia Orchestra Passing the Hat

The administration of the Philadelphia Orchestra has declared that venerable institution bankrupt. Rumblings around the orchestra have speculated that the board's case for bankruptcy was in effect nothing more than a way to gain the upper hand in salary negotiations with the musicians. The musicians, it is true, do fairly well for orchestral players, but they have been willing to give on salary and continue to enjoy the overwhelming support of their audience. While the ensemble undertakes an extraordinary Listen with Your Heart campaign to raise the money needed to cover budget shortfalls, high-profile musicians are being lured elsewhere. What matters in all of this is that the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the United States, is still playing. As they showed when they came, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society (for the 40th time, as Neale Perl informed the house), to busk at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last night, in fact, they are playing very well indeed.

Of the Philadelphians' many regular visits to the area, the performances with their current chief conductor and artistic adviser, Charles Dutoit, in 2010 and 2009 have been the most satisfying. Hopes are high for the impending tenure of the orchestra's new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will take up his full duties with the ensemble for the 2012-2013 season, but Dutoit has led a rejuvenation of the orchestra's legendary sound. In this program of Mendelssohn, Walton, and Tchaikovsky, they were ferocious, unified, and subtle, with all sections sounding solid and especially the strings glowing with luminous warmth. The talent and hard work came from the musicians, but Dutoit led with a carefully conceived plan, giving the opening Hebrides Overture a smooth, distant opening that cranked up to a tempestuous uproar. (Anyone who grew up watching Merrie Melodies cartoons cannot hear this piece's main theme without thinking of Inki and the Minah Bird.) With urbane gestures Dutoit created a palette that had a broad range of color and volume, a portrait in sound.

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S. Lloyd, William Walton: Muse of Fire
Gil Shaham, the one-time Wunderkind who turned 40 this year, generally impresses but rarely thrills, at least not in recent memory. One expected him to be able to handle William Walton's violin concerto, created for Jascha Heifetz after the wide success of Walton's viola concerto. The commission came at a time when Walton was making good money writing film scores, but he saw the decision between the violin concerto and another film score offer as a sign of whether he was going to be a film composer or a "real composer" ("a reel composer or a real composer," as biographer Stephen Lloyd put it). Thanks to the composer's work to refine the solo part with Heifetz, this concerto is a tour de force for a virtuosic soloist. (One of the two surviving autograph manuscripts, a reduced score for violin and piano, is in the Jascha Heifetz collection at the Library of Congress.) As heard in other recent performances, Shaham's intonation, especially high on the E string, has become less and less reliable. It was not always true in the Walton, but too many episodes were spoiled by less-than-true tuning, and a jumpy tendency to rush unsettled parts of the tarantella second movement and the demanding finale. Thanks mostly to the orchestra, the lush parts of the score like the jazzy slow sections were radiant, reflecting Walton's growing love for Lady Alice Wimborne. Shaham's sound, often muted as he faced Dutoit more than the audience, was just not pretty enough to make up for some of the lack of technical finish (certainly not by comparison to the recording by Jascha Heifetz, with Walton conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra).

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Anne Midgette, Financially troubled Philadelphia Orchestra proves its worth (Washington Post, May 23)
The original programming for this concert listed the final work as Ein Heldenleben, and it was with some regret that we learned that the Strauss had been swapped out for Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony. Dutoit must be a wizard for making me like Tchaikovsky, since many conductors' approach favors either merciless bludgeoning or submersion in high-fructose corn syrup. Dutoit kept the loudest dynamic level only for the big climaxes, remembering that the decrescendo is also part of the musician's expressive arsenal. The opening theme was forlorn, giving a feeling of isolation that haunted many parts of the score. Tchaikovsky's focus on the low strings was played for its gloomy qualities, and even in places where an exaggerated rubato could easily creep in, as in the tender horn solo in the second movement or the sentimental second theme of the first movement, Dutoit kept it to a minimum. The brass provided volcanic eruptions of the main theme in the later movements, while the third-movement waltz swirled but was more a memory of a dance than a raucous ball. Wisely, Dutoit did not simply unleash the sonic hounds in the fourth movement but kept the sound quite contained, with a sense of a coming explosion underneath, the ongoing turbulence not allowed to force the sound of the wind solos, for example. Best of all, he treated the absurd coda to the fourth movement like an imperial march, at a good clip that kept it as short as possible.

Visiting orchestras on the WPAS docket next season include the Budapest Festival Orchestra (October 26), the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (November 19), the Vienna Philharmonic (February 29), the European Union Youth Orchestra (April 15), and -- surprise! -- the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 11).

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