Financially troubled Philadelphia Orchestra proves its worth

An orchestra is a symbol of opulence and musical excellence. The Philadelphia Orchestra, these days, has become a symbol for bankruptcy and a threatened future. And the orchestra’s performance at the Kennedy Center on Friday night was a test of how these seemingly contradictory things could coexist.

Obviously no one expected the orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy protection in April, to take the stage in patched evening wear, with broken bows and dented brass, or to pass the hat at intermission. Members of the staff were, though, wearing buttons saying “Listen with your heart,” the slogan of the ongoing fundraising campaign hoping to mitigate a structural deficit of $14.5 million. (One wonders why the architects of the campaign chose to align themselves with the title of a song from the Disney film “Pocahontas,” particularly since the real message they want to convey is less about listening with hearts than with pocketbooks.)

Expectations went, if anything, the other way — on the high side. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a regular guest in Washington, thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society, whose president, Neale Perl, mentioned in his standard pre-concert remarks that this was the orchestra’s 40th WPAS appearance. Those appearances are usually among the season’s best orchestra concerts that the Washington audience gets to hear on its home turf.

No fear. Friday’s concert was one of the best I’ve heard from the orchestra in years.

Its hallmark was ease. The orchestra’s administration may be concerned about its capital, but the musicians and conductor Charles Dutoit concentrated on the music. Rather than giving their all simply to meet the works’ technical challenges, trying to prove themselves by going all-out from the start, they conveyed a sense of holding much in reserve. The result was a freedom to explore, to articulate, to have fun even in works that aren’t inherently fun: to exult in the full spectrum of sounds displayed in Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” (also known as the Hebrides Overture), or to build drama cumulatively over the whole span of the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony.

The concerto — there’s always a concerto — was Walton’s discursive violin concerto, which at times tears its hair in paroxysms of emotion and at other times presents a more somber lyricism with whiffs of an Edwardian dance band (and which, though not often played, was already heard in the region earlier this season when the Fairfax Symphony offered it with the soloist Chee-Yun in January). The violinist Gil Shaham, who had played an impromptu 15-minute mini-concert in a gallery of the Hirshhorn earlier in the day, got to show his more intense side here — Walton has the violinist often fiddling for dear life — but countered the work’s humidity with his innate ebullience, cutting over the moist, rich strings with a knife-edge of sound at the end of the first movement.

The unexpected triumph, though, was a breathtaking performance of the Tchaikovsky Fifth. This is a familiar and often episodic work; when Ivan Fischer played it with the National Symphony Orchestra, I initially admired the way he brought out its contrasts. Dutoit’s approach couldn’t have been more different: In his hands, the symphony grew organically out of a single idea, of which all of its various episodes were manifestations. The reading makes sense, given Tchaikovsky’s propensity for bringing his first-movement theme back time and again in later movements. It also cleared away the sugary quality of the prettier passages and the bombastic qualities of the more pompous ones: Dutoit firmly, with consummate control, brought out the profundity underlying the melodies, downplayed recurrences that might seem obvious, and gave a performance that was a model of rhetoric, in the best sense, building to a searing final movement. Why do we listen to these old pieces over and over again? A performance like this is the answer.

When talking about the future of classical music, one of my favorite tropes is that excellent music-making will prevail. But this concert represented a sober warning. This Tchaikovsky Fifth was as good as orchestra playing gets. Yet even this caliber of performance may not be enough to save the Philadelphia Orchestra from a grim future.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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