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That's Italian! La Scala Philharmonic Scores at Strathmore

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

If you are sitting in the right place at the Music Center at Strathmore (and the middle of the hall on the first level is a prime location), you will never be in a better venue in the capital area for listening to an orchestra. On Wednesday night, Strathmore hosted an ensemble fully worthy of this acoustic splendor, when the La Scala Philharmonic played the most exciting orchestral concert I've heard since Sir Simon Rattle came through town with the Berlin Philharmonic almost four years ago.

I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said that he never recognized the difference between singing perfectly in tune and only approximately in tune except when the soprano Nellie Melba was onstage. I had much the same response to the La Scala Philharmonic: It was bracing to recall just how richly nuanced, meticulously unified, tonally variegated and altogether magnificent an orchestra can sound, with louds and softs and subtle sonic intricacies that only a few ensembles can muster and are impossible to capture on any recording.

Riccardo Chailly has been conducting the La Scala Philharmonic -- the house orchestra for Milan's celebrated Teatro alla Scala -- for almost 30 years and they share an organic approach to musicmaking that is provincial in the best sense of the word, the product of a shared time and place. This was an Italian conductor leading an Italian orchestra in Italian music -- a triple diamond lineup worthy of a casino jackpot.

Rossini's "William Tell" Overture began the program, a disparate sequence of seemingly unrelated musical ideas, only some of which are famous (the score begins with an Apollonian miniature cello concerto that is as inward-looking as the "giddyap" finale is extroverted). Chailly made much of the score's diversity yet traced an innate unity, and even the most hackneyed passages sounded fresh once again.

The late Nino Rota is probably best known in the United States for his music for Franco Zeffirelli's heavy-panting filmic adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Yet much of his best work was written for Federico Fellini, and Rota adapted his score for "La Strada" (1956) into a full ballet 10 years after the film was released. It is an opulent and exuberant work, almost a half-hour long and gleefully derivative (I never thought Igor Stravinsky, Jacques Offenbach, George Gershwin and P┬┐rez Prado would sound so good together), and it was played with appropriate vigor, fancy and affection.

The evening concluded with the two best-known works of Ottorino Respighi -- "The Fountains of Rome" and "The Pines of Rome." Somewhat strangely, these scores -- perennial staples on classical radio and time-tested bestsellers on disc -- are rarely heard in the concert hall. Perhaps Respighi's unashamed delight in sonic spectacle has rendered the "Rome" series guilty pleasures for some listeners (we don't hear Ravel's "Bolero" in the concert hall very often either), but they seemed works of genuine substance, as well as enormous fun, on Wednesday night.

And one moment is positively magical. I'm always haunted by the song of an actual nightingale that Respighi recorded more than 80 years ago that is played in the background toward the end of "Pines." How many generations of birds -- and human beings -- have passed since the early 1920s, and how terribly much has been lost! And yet, somehow, the cry of this single wonderful creature has been preserved, a precious link to another world that still casts its magic in the 21st century.

The concert was the Washington Performing Arts Society's first offering of the 2007-2008 season. WPAS will have some high standards to live up to this year.

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