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Philadelphia Orchestra, Yeoman's Work

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Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto, J. Ehnes, Philharmonia Orchestra, V. Ashkenazy

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Paganini, Caprices, J. Ehnes


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Bach, Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, J. Ehnes
Music has potentially terrifying power to move listeners, to push them over an emotional edge, to shift sympathies, to warm or cool hearts. Every once in a while, and probably less often for a person who listens to so many concerts, one is reminded of that power, and that is what happened to me during Friday night's performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Music Center at Strathmore. This fabled ensemble has been through a rocky period in the last several years, after the tenure of music director Christoph Eschenbach ended ignobly (for reasons that likely involve both maestro and musicians) and the poorly handled response by management to the ensemble's financial troubles. All who love this orchestra owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Dutoit, who stepped in as Chief Conductor in 2008 and has guided it so well up to the point when the new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will take the reins this fall. The concerts that Dutoit has led with the Philadelphians here in Washington in 2011, 2010, and 2009 -- like this one on Friday night, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society -- make us rather sad to see Dutoit go.

Violinist James Ehnes, last heard last year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, brought the first revelation of the power of music, but not in the rather ordinary Mendelssohn concerto (op. 64) that he played. A piece heard probably too often, it is almost always pleasing and almost never extraordinary. Ehnes, who has recorded the piece, played it very well, with striking purity of intonation high on the E string, especially on the flautando notes in the first movement's cadenza, and while his tone in the slow movement was not as luscious as it could have been, his acrobatic playing in the puckish third movement was cleanly articulated and adventurous. The coordination between orchestra and soloist was not always in place, but this is hardly surprising given that the musicians came down from Philadelphia in the midst of some performances of Richard Strauss's Elektra back home. After the concerto, Ehnes treated the appreciative audience to two encores, a spectacular rendition of Paganini's 24th caprice, for the fireworks, and the Largo movement of Bach's third solo violin sonata. The second encore, played with impeccable clarity and so little distortion of rhythm, utterly disarmed my critical resistance and left me emotionally overwhelmed. With a cooler head, it was hard not to try to analyze later what about this performance so affected me -- was it the coincidence with the virtuosic display of the Paganini, the valedictory occasion of the concert, something in my own life that left me vulnerable? -- but ultimately the chemistry of this sort of reaction remains mysterious.

Dutoit continued to amaze at the podium, opening the concert with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, another observation of the composer's 150th anniversary year, in a rendition that was marked by its fluidity of pacing. Guided by a mastery of gesture and expression, this performance sighed with the faun's erotic fantasies described in the Mallarmé poem that was the basis of the composition. The strings provided the softest cushion for beautiful solos from violin and especially flute, with exotic tinges from the crotales here and there. The second half was devoted to Shostakovich's monumental fifth symphony, a work that was calculated by its composer to save his name at its premiere in 1937, after his troubles with Soviet officials in the previous years. Scholar Laurel Fay wrote of the premiere that "the significance of the occasion was apparent to everyone. Shostakovich's fate was at stake." To combat charges of formalism, the fifth symphony was conceived in a "traditional, accessible symphonic style," with a trajectory described by an early program note as "a lengthy spiritual battle, crowned by victory." While its bombastic finale could easily be understood as a Soviet victory, Fay also writes of evidence that Soviet bureaucrats interpreted the huge ovations of the audience at the premiere, in support of Shostakovich, as a possible challenge to the government's authority. Understandably skittish about explaining what the symphony might mean -- as Fay puts it, "No one was in a position to predict where the whims of Stalin might lead" -- Shostakovich left most of the interpretation to critics and bureaucrats and listeners. Fortunately for him, it was quickly claimed as a Soviet work.

Other Articles:

Peter Dobrin, Virtuosic “Elektra” from orchestra and singers (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11)

---, Elektra grows Philadelphia Orchestra to 117 - plus singers (Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11)

Marie Gullard, On the road again with violinist James Ehnes and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Washington Examiner, May 10)

Steve Smith, A Symbiotic Relationship That Just Keeps Growing (New York Times, April 29)
Dutoit has not struck me as a natural conductor for Shostakovich, although he did make a recording of symphonies 1 and 15 with Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. He took much the same approach to the warm slow opening of the first movement as he had with the opening Debussy work, drawing transparent melodic lines from the violins, flute, and violas, but then unleashing machine-like rigor and power at the piano's entrance, leading to a faster section, and the snare drum drum-majoring a mean-spirited march. Dutoit's graceful gestures led the musicians in a remarkably unified second movement, creating the sense of a neurotic dance, crisply articulated and not too sardonic, with even a childlike innocence in the simple trio section, the pizzicato string section more coy than caustic. The third movement had a smoldering sense of tragedy, the string melodies floated at first, then more searing, with some tense and plaintive woodwind solos. In the take-no-prisoners finale, all sections of the orchestra were firing on all cylinders, a machine of coordinated precision, with an elegiac slow section that ushered in that powerful conclusion. It was another example of music's terrifying power -- not unlike the disturbing effect of watching Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens, this is music that could just possibly convince you that there was something glorious about Joseph Stalin and the Soviet machine that he led, after all.

Next week (May 17 and 19), the Philadelphia Orchestra plays its final concerts under Charles Dutoit as Chief Conductor, in a program featuring the complete ballet score of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and pianist Maria João Pires, replacing an indisposed Maurizio Pollini, in Chopin's second piano concerto.


Anonymous said...

Dutoit also recorded the 5th and 9th Symphonies of Shostakovich with the OSM (though this may not have been domestically released):

Along with several discs of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, this shows him as an accomplished conductor of Russian music.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that -- more listening for me!