Dutoit brings back Philly’s golden age sound

Date: May 4 and 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is no stranger to the Beijing audience. It was the first American orchestra to visit modern China, in 1973, with Eugene Ormandy. The last visit was two years ago, with Christoph Eschenbach. It is now back in the Chinese capital again, only this time without a permanent music director. Charles Dutoit, currently “Chief Conductor” with the Orchestra, is considered temporary and, despite his popularity and good relationships with the players, does not hold the Orchestra’s coveted directorship.

This temporary appointment has not deterred Dutoit from attempting the works most associated with the Philadelphia Sound: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in the first evening, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring in the second.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was the composer’s last composition, and was widely considered to be a summary of his late style, which emphasized the tonal color and character of individual instruments. Dutoit’s rendition was precise and cohesive, and he seemed thoroughly in control despite the piece’s intricate dynamisms and complexities. The Symphonic Dances, dedicated to and premiered by the Orchestra and Ormandy, is considered to be a top-line item in Philadelphia’s repertoire, and here in Beijing this golden age sound was once again lit up and alive.

Also in the first evening’s programme was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, soloed by Arabella Steinbacher. Steinbacher’s top notes were fiery but insecure at times, and her pitch was in some instances warped, especially in the top range. Her Tchaikovsky was measured, but sometimes felt unnecessarily dragged on. Any violinist playing the piece would look forward to the climactic locomotion of the third movement, but Steinbacher seemed to have lost focus here and there, and sounded as if her agile prowess was the only thing that remained in a soulless figure lacking any emotive sentimentality. Horns in the second movement sounded unnecessarily loud, with its dynamics often overwhelming the exquisite solo lines. While a great majority of the audience gasped and cheered at the end of the piece, I couldn’t help but notice that a few souls left the hall for intermission feeling somewhat less than fully satisfied.

Steinbacher, born to a German father and a Japanese mother, is a beautiful woman, with the kind of mystic, Eurasian facial features and gorgeous, ballerina-like figure that most certainly turn heads wherever she goes. Yet, that beauty was thoroughly betrayed by the alarmingly distracting gown that wrapped around her body. It had these coffee-brown feathers that, when sewn together, looked as if Big Bird jumped into a puddle of mud. And when her body moved with the music, I couldn’t get Big Bird and its fluttering wings off my mind.

The all-Stravinsky evening the next day was quite a rare treat. The Firebird was lively and feisty, with the clear agenda of initially masquerading but slowly unveiling the full glory of Stravinsky’s orchestration. The Rite of Spring moved with a spirited, almost playfully prankish pace, for a good reason: it is one of the Orchestra’s signature pieces, and the one piece that not only was first recorded in the US by Philadelphia with Stokowski, but also became commercially popular after being prominently featured in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, whose orchestral music was, of course, played by the Orchestra.

The crisp virtuosity on display by Dutoit and the Orchestra transported the audience back to this gilded golden age that today’s audience could only sample via recordings. The first evening’s encore, a section from Ravel’s Daphnis, was filled with the sort of tender romanticism that evoked Muti and late-career Ormandy. The presence of octogenarian percussionist — the legendary Alan Abel — was not even formally credited by the printed programme but, at least to me, the most special. It was therefore regrettable that neither of the concerts was sold out, with plenty of seats available in nearly every section of the hall.

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