Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky with the Philadelphia Orchestra

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last weekend the Philadelphia Orchestra opened its 2007-2008 concert season with a concert of Tchaikovsky’s 1st symphony and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring , conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach.

The Tchaikovsky that opened the program was tailored to the qualities that made the Philadelphia Orchestra famous. The legendary Philadelphia Sound – dominated with lush strings and beautiful woodwinds- shined through and allowed listeners to remember the days of Eugene Ormandy’s landmark tenure with the orchestra. Many sections of the orchestra also had brief solo sections that allowed them to shine: of particular note are the cellos and violas and a duet between solo oboe (Richard Woodhams) and flute (Jeffrey Khaner, who performed as soloist at an Orchestra 2001 concert on campus last week), all in the beautiful second movement. The performance unfolded at a leisurely pace that suited the flavor of this symphony which exuded delicate, but never sentimental, nostalgia throughout its duration.

More ambitious, and less successful, was Eschenbach’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s landmark score. In order to succeed this piece, which was originally written as a ballet depicting the sacrifice of a young virgin who danced herself to death in a pagan Russian ritual, must be performed with the barbaric intensity that nearly sparked a riot during the performance of its 1913 premier in Paris. Eschenbach often conducts rather slowly. This can sometimes offer new insights into a piece’s musical structure and heighten the tension of a performance, as it did for the central section of the first movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in a revelatory performance that opened last year’s season. In this instance Eschenbach’s pacing heightened and then reduced the tension in a way that made the overall performance seem somewhat muddled. His interpretation was not without merit, however, and I will have to reserve final judgment until I see it again Friday afternoon.

The playing of the orchestra was uniformly excellent. The opening bassoon solo (played by Daniel Matsukawa) was as good as any recorded version that I’ve heard. The percussion section played intensely when they were required to. The brass section, especially the tubas and trombones played with raw guttural power that enhanced the primitive aspects of the score. Although Philadelphia has not historically been known for its brass playing the past few years has seen a flourishing of the section, which was wonderfully in evidence during the performance.

The Orchestra will repeat this program Tuesday evening, October 23rd. The Rite of Spring will be performed again on October 25th and 26th, coupled with Reinecke’s flute concerto and the U.S. premier of Wolfgang Rihm’s Verwandlung 2.

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