Philadelphia's Drum Roll Before Its Main Attraction

Christoph Eschenbach (in Jan. 7 photo) conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in an
Christoph Eschenbach (in Jan. 7 photo) conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in an "Eroica" of great strength. (By Michael T. Regan -- Philadelphia Orchestra Association)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A new work with few surprises and a 200-year-old masterpiece with hundreds of them made up the Philadelphia Orchestra's Monday night program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach.

The New York-born, Philadelphia-based Jennifer Higdon is the latest composer to take on the challenge of writing a concerto for percussion and orchestra (similar recent examples have been provided by Tan Dun, Michael Torke, Philip Glass and Joseph Schwantner). Her 20-minute contribution -- titled, appropriately, Percussion Concerto -- is in one long movement that starts fast, slows down, speeds up again and then closes not with just a bang, but with a BANG, in the time-tested manner of percussion concertos immemorial.

Higdon would seem to be interested in combining the plain-spoken, mostly consonant melodic steadiness of such American forebears as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson with the fiercely colorful, hyper-muscular, "Richard-Strauss-on-steroids" orchestration associated with Schwantner and the late Jacob Druckman. It is clearly a winning formula -- Higdon is now said to be the second-most-performed of living American orchestral composers, trailing only John Adams -- and the standing ovation her concerto received was both full-hearted and seemingly all but unanimous.

All this sounds like damnation with faint praise, and I suppose it is. There's nothing "wrong" with Higdon's piece -- indeed, it is wrought with enormous skill -- but it felt more like manufactured product than any sort of personal expression. Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that Higdon has turned out three concertos this year. Sudden success has a way of leaping upon artists, and new and unexpected demand can easily exhaust supply. In his typically perceptive program notes, the critic Paul Griffiths called Higdon a "composer of knowhow and energy," which is true enough, and fine so far as it goes. But knowhow and energy are not the highest artistic values, and I hope for more from Higdon.

Percussion concertos are almost always terrific showpieces for the soloist, however, and this one proved no exception. Colin Currie ran lithely about the stage, summoning whispered arpeggiations from the marimba, icy chimes from the xylophone and a wild "battle-of-the-bands" drum solo toward the finale. Eschenbach and his forces (particularly the Philadelphia Orchestra percussion section, which acted as a sort of backup chorus for Currie) provided alert, lively, clangorous accompaniment.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") followed intermission and proved once again just how inexhaustible some music is. This symphony has been played almost constantly for two centuries now, and yet it all seemed new on Monday -- the still-shocking bray of dissonance in the opening movement, the wrenching and ever-more-affecting convulsions of pain in the "Funeral March," the bright, gentle scherzo that ushers in a new morning, and the final set of variations, simultaneously grand and comical.

I've never found Eschenbach so convincing as he was in this "Eroica." He made full use of his wonderful orchestra and its large and lustrous string section, yet there was nothing "fat" about the sound. On the contrary, the playing had drive and sinew; fugal passages, in particular, brought to mind the grandeur and austerity of J.S. Bach. The performance was neither fast nor slow -- or, rather, it was both fast and slow at different and unpredictable times, elastic in the same way that a rubber band will stretch and contract, yet remain always within proportionate bounds.

The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, which also presented four unadvertised pre-concert talks (by impresario, conductor, composer and soloist) before the Higdon work, at least two of them unnecessary.

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