Philadelphia Orchestra at Strathmore

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Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Charles Dutoit. (Chris Lee/Courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra)
May 13, 2012

In these days of increasingly internationalized and homogenized orchestral playing, we sometimes have to remind ourselves that the great orchestras of the world once possessed sonorities so uniquely their own that they were instantly recognizable. The Philadelphia Orchestra, which played a WPAS concert at Strathmore Hall on Friday under its chief conductor, Charles Dutoit, was renowned during much of the last century for its ultra-saturated string tone. It was a sound cultivated by music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, exaggerated by the old Academy of Music’s thick acoustics and beefed-up on its Columbia recordings.

Recent decades have seen the Philadelphians leave behind that singularly lush string sound, as they’ve become a lither and more versatile ensemble. But there were moments Friday in certain phrases — such as the opening of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and the expansively lyrical moments in the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto — when that decadently rich, old style returned. It was a pleasure to hear.

But what was even more striking about those famous strings was how silken and luminous they sounded and how subtly responsive they were to Dutoit’s interpretive urgings. Dutoit — who has a decades-long relationship with this orchestra — is above all a scrupulous colorist, and he exploited the Shostakovich for its often subtle range of hues. There was drama, to be sure, in his reading of the symphony, as well as a succession of vivid incidents. But tension wasn’t always palpable, and the composer’s dark-night-of-the-soul angst was significantly missing. The first movement’s opening chords were more yearning than trenchant, and the largo was a relatively dry-eyed affair; the sonorities he elicited emphasized beauty over tragic weight. That meant a welcome lack of militaristic hectoring, but the reading felt a shade cosmopolitan for material of such enthusiastic brashness.

Even with a reduced complement of strings in the Mendelssohn, the violins displayed a notable sheen, and the mellowness of the cellos was matched by eloquent wind and brass playing. Dutoit did a lovely job of blending the sectional voices and provided a comfortable carpet of sound to set off his young violin soloist, James Ehnes. Ehnes produced a handsome, keenly focused tone and delivered the piece with athletic technique, a fluidly even execution of the arpeggiated chords in the opening-movement cadenza, and exquisitely floated harmonics throughout. He rather generously provided two encores — the third movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for Solo Violin, played with warmth and great delicacy of phrasing, and a tour de force rendition of Paganini’s 24th Caprice, with playing dazzling enough in the pizzicato variation to trigger an explosion of applause mid-piece.

Dutoit was really in his wheelhouse with Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” After 20 years at the helm of the Montreal Symphony — where the Impressionist repertoire became a signature success for him — Dutoit understands Debussy like few others. Sultry and languorous, his reading Friday happily side-stepped the tendency of many conductors to shine a clinical light on the score to bring out its modernit; it instead evoked a cloud of subtly shifting colors and shimmering half-lights. He drew a diaphanous sound from the strings (with some ravishing pianissimo playing), and phrasing of memorable personality from the winds and brass. Most important, Dutoit took his time to let Debussy’s writing register and allowed innumerable solos to subtly surface and be subsumed again into the blended texture as if they had been barely dreamed.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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