The Philadelphia Orchestra’s stirring Beethoven’s Ninth


Conductor Bramwell Tovey and Wolf Trap Opera soloist Speedo Green, bass-baritone. (Griffin Harrington)
June 29

Even with the trucks going by on the Dulles toll road, the thick, oppressive summer heat, the usual congestion hassles getting out and, in this instance, problematic sound engineering, a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra is well worth the trek out to Wolf Trap. On Saturday, the celebrated band joined with the Washington Choral Arts Society in a stirring Beethoven’s Ninth, led by Canadian conductor Bramwell Tovey.

Despite a recent bankruptcy episode, the Philadelphia Orchestra remains one of the world’s great ensembles. The discipline and unanimity in the strings extend to the back stands, the winds and brass balance themselves properly, and unison passages between disparate instrumental groups are conspicuously in tune.

Tovey, a fine, experienced musician (he is also a composer and pianist), imposed himself just enough. But he was well aware that he was driving a Maserati, and mostly just offered guidance at key moments rather than trying to drive the music along. To extend the metaphor a little, the engine under the hood — timpanist Don Liuzzi — was turbocharged, sometimes to a fault. He is a virtuoso, but at times one wondered who was actually in charge.

The choral contribution was quite impressive, particularly since there was almost certainly only one joint rehearsal. But the two groups knew the piece well enough that all of the gear-shifts came off flawlessly. The four vocal soloists were all good, though they had more help than they needed from the amplification system. (And the performance had to pause briefly, mid-stream, when sound feedback ballooned loudly.)

The concert opened with Beethoven’s “Egmont” overture and the Britten “Four Sea Interludes.” In the overture, Tovey’s heavy tempos brought out the foreboding but didn’t seem to leave room for the lighter episodes. The Britten was wonderful; from the shivering opening (perfectly blended violins and piccolo), to the yearning “Moonlight” section (the phrases building like waves lapping against one another), to the virtuoso closing pages (again, the brass properly balanced against the strings), the pleasures of hearing a great orchestra strut its stuff were almost physical.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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