Philadelphia Orchestra's Own Musical Language

James Conlon led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a wide-ranging program.
James Conlon led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a wide-ranging program. (By Mark Lyons)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

Classical music has embedded within it an old philosophical, cultural and political rivalry that is now being rapidly forgotten. Europe may be homogenizing into a polite, one-currency, free-trade, no-passports-needed ecumenical playground, but in the concert hall -- where progress is anathema -- the chasm between things French and things German remains a powerful division.

Looking at the program the Philadelphia Orchestra brought to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Thursday evening, one might have expected the old French-German thing to define the night's musicmaking. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (the "Emperor"), a blustery work of quintessentially German grandeur, opened the program. Ravel's "La Valse," which is either a nostalgic redux of the great age of the waltz or a bitter, seething-with-anger satire of it (no one can quite decide), brought it to a conclusion. In between was Var¿se's "Ameriques," which belongs to the French camp (the composer was French), though it was written in New York and is filled with the sonic urban chaos of Gotham.

Those were the parameters of a fascinating, frustrating and ultimately fulfilling evening of music from one of this country's great orchestras. Yet it did not play out according to any neat, expected divisions. Beethoven's concerto was placed in the hands of a French pianist, H¿l¿ne Grimaud, who seemed almost disdainfully indifferent to everything German in it. Under the baton of James Conlon, Var¿se's "Ameriques" never sounded so Russian. And Ravel's "La Valse" came from no place identifiable, other than, perhaps, Conlon's id. What Ravel tore asunder, Conlon shredded further -- with perversely satisfying results.

The interest of the evening was all in the Var¿se. From the stage, Conlon announced a surprising fact: Thursday marked the first time the Philadelphia Orchestra had performed the piece since premiering it in 1926. That was during the tenure of Leopold Stokowski, a monster of a man who was imperious and theatrical and particularly devoted to Var¿se. Yes, Var¿se wrote violent and difficult music, but it was more popular in the 1920s than Conlon's remarks from the stage made it seem. Stokowski had an almost absolute power to overrule, provoke and educate his audience in the '20s, and he managed to champion Var¿se to some considerable renown. Would that we had more such conductors today.

"Ameriques" is still shocking. While Stravinsky's superficially similar "Rite of Spring" (it premiered in 1913) has become a concert hall favorite, Var¿se's 1926 "Ameriques" remains a rarity, perhaps because it fails the toe-tap test. Both works are dynamic, aggressive and percussive, but unlike Var¿se, Stravinsky sets up regular rhythmic patterns that carry the audience along, primally, viscerally, even as great storms of dissonance crash around them.

Var¿se offers no such entree. The piece is stitched together from constantly shifting rhythmic patterns, only building in its final minutes a regular, propulsive, forward-driving energy. Time is fractured into snippets and bits, melodic ideas are summoned and dispatched with little indulgence for repetition. Conlon's interpretation allowed the music to remain scattered and episodic, forcing the ear to seek solace in the surface play of orchestral texture. The finale, a colossal steamroller of sound, managed to make the acoustically inert Kennedy Center Concert Hall sound almost like a real concert hall, alive and brilliant for a moment.

Unfortunately, tonal brilliance eluded the orchestra in the Beethoven. The textures were thick and clotted, with even the brass underwhelming. No matter. Grimaud was working assiduously to deflate the grandeur of the piece, searching out its uncertainties, reveling in everything unstable, subtle, sly and subversive. The piece opens with a grand oratorical flourish from the soloist, which she delivered with a regally dismissive flit of the hand.

The power of this approach lay in the second movement, and in the deliciously tenuous transition into the third. When confronted with Beethoven's Teutonic willfulness, Grimaud punted, producing a small sound, staring out the window while the vulgar, jaunty, brass-band bits passed by. And yet, it was an interesting rendition, filled with small revelations. The French-German distinction is a clumsy one, especially when you hear how much Gallic nuance a French pianist can find in a German score.

Ravel's "La Valse" is a crowd pleaser, and it pleased again Thursday, even if it was subjected to powerful distorting forces.

Conlon further deemphasized the waltz contours that Ravel purposely obscures. Vienna was banished. The spirit of Var¿se was invited in. If there were moments in the Var¿se when the Philadelphia Orchestra sounded slightly unsure of the direction, when the long hiatus since it last played the piece suggested a tentative grasp of its difficulties, "La Valse" was performed with utter confidence. Conlon muscled the piece through to an exciting, exhausted conclusion, making good on his description of the music as "the deconstruction and destruction of the beauty and the elegance" of the waltz. It was a thorough-going, unsentimental, philosophical statement. Almost German.

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