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In performance: The Philadelphia Orchestra

Edited to add: In today's Washington Post:
Philadelphians take a stroll through Russia, by Robert Battey

The still-fabulous Philadelphians made their first appearance at the Music Center at Strathmore last Wednesday night in a conservative, all-Russian program. The Philadelphia Orchestra is trying to move forward after years of uncertainty; on top of financial woes common to everyone else, it is still looking for a music director since the unplanned-for early departure of Christoph Eschenbach a few years ago. And its CEO and board chairman have been in their jobs less than a year, before which both positions went unfilled for some time.
(read more after the jump)

But the musical product is still dazzling. Charles Dutoit, the orchestra's "chief conductor," is handling his caretaker role with grace and dignity and, more importantly, is maintaining the orchestra's vaunted precision and virtuosity. The lush, string-centric sound that Stokowski and Ormandy cultivated in Philadelphia for decades has been replaced by a leaner, more protean sonority. This is industry-wide -- with the much greater diversity in personnel than they had a couple of generations ago, the top American orchestras are now more musically agile, but also sound more alike.

As a senior statesman of the podium (but who was passed over for the orchestra's music directorship) Dutoit has nothing left to prove, and doesn't try to stretch or challenge the orchestra or its audiences, either in this or in previous DC appearances. Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture," a hackneyed staple of youth orchestras everywhere, is not what a world-class ensemble should be taking on tour, no matter how good they make it sound.

The rest of the program, though, was worth the price of admission. Pianist Nikolaï Lugansky delivered an astonishing Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3. He neither fought against nor tried to tame this fearsome beast; rather he rode it, showed it off, and let it roar. There was never any banging; his fingers were steel mallets or gossamer butterflies, as needed, and he clearly knew, phrase-by-phrase, whether he was playing solo or chamber music. Although Lugansky arrived too soon at the climax of the big first-movement cadenza and had nowhere to go for awhile, this was still a superb overall rendition of this warhorse. Some of these players had sat with players who sat with players who recorded the concerto with Rachmaninoff himself, and the warm broth they provided was positively ambrosial.

Stravinsky's "Petrushka" is right in the orchestra's sweet spot as well, depending so much, as it does, on high-wire solo playing. Each of the principals delivered gleaming perfection, while the simultaneous meters in the first and third tableaux were as child's-play to the ensemble. Dutoit presided with relaxed mastery, and the colors leapt out. The raucous applause at the end, as each soloist stood, was like the intros at a Caps game.

--Robert Battey

By Anne Midgette  |  May 27, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Comments

I too, attended the Strathmore appearance of the Philadelphia Orchestra but came away with a less glorious impression of the performance. WPAS President, Neale Perle, introduced the evening by stating that the Philadelphia was arguably one of the great orchestras. Wednesday's performance was itself fodder for the argument. I felt as if I was listening to different orchestras before and after the intermission. While I agree that Nicoli Luganski provided a marvelously balanced performance, I found the tonal quality of the brass throughout the first half of the performance to be harsh and somewhat discomforting. I was surprised when the same orchestra provided a warm and unified tone for the performance of Petrushka. Over all I was pleased with the evening.

Posted by: linkenn | May 31, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

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