Dutoit Leads Philadelphia Orchestra in Lively Program at Kennedy Center

The Philadelphia Orchestra brought its distinctive sound to a Kennedy Center program including works by Ravel, Liszt and Rachmaninoff.
The Philadelphia Orchestra brought its distinctive sound to a Kennedy Center program including works by Ravel, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. (By Jessica Griffin)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

Blocking out concerns about its utter lack of leadership, the Philadelphia Orchestra demonstrated its vitality Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center with a swaggering showpiece of a program that was sometimes pretty, sometimes gritty and generally good fun. For an orchestra currently without a board chairman, president or music director, it sounds awfully good.

"Lack of leadership" is relative, of course. Charles Dutoit, who led the program, is the orchestra's chief conductor and artistic adviser -- a position akin to Iván Fischer's interim status at the National Symphony Orchestra. But Dutoit has also been the artistic director/principal conductor of the orchestra's summer series at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., since 1990, so he's part of the orchestra's family in a way Fischer cannot yet be in Washington.

Indeed, Dutoit's whole mien on Wednesday seemed more relaxed and familiar than the understated, precise manner he brought to the same podium when he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in February. This had its advantages and disadvantages: What he lost in crispness, he gained in intimacy. His sense of nuance and orchestral color was consistent in both performances, but he was more reckless with the Philadelphians, which gave Wednesday's concert at times a looseness, even an informality.

The program made more sense on paper than it did to the ear. Its first half featured the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, first in Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, then in Liszt's "Totentanz." It was an odd juxtaposition, though bracing. In the Ravel, the orchestra cavorted through the composer's excellent orchestral writing while Thibaudet pounded energetically and a little sloppily on the keyboard, starting with an unbridled outburst, like a tantrum, and generally using a lot of pedal. The Liszt, by contrast, is a Gothic showpiece, a Halloween-y effusion of scary swoops up and down the keyboard and lots of iterations of the sinister "Dies Irae" chant theme that surfaces in so many classical works to evoke death, darkness and the supernatural. Thibaudet had a lot of fun in this particular sandbox, especially when the piano sanctifies the dark theme in one variation by turning it into a fugue, giving it an angelic aspect before the orchestra again seizes it and whirls it off into the demonic.

The "Dies Irae" also surfaces in Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, the meat of the second half of the program, which emerged as a curious blend of understatement and effusion. That is: Some of the playing was simply marvelous, notably the solo winds. But Dutoit didn't always maintain the intensity of the grand gestures; it was a nice performance, but it felt long. When the evening returned to Ravel, tied up with the bow of "La Valse," the focus surged back into the playing: Here, the conductor truly seemed on home turf.

The whole program seemed geared to a certain kind of orchestral darkness that fit the richness of Philadelphia's fabled, still-discernible sound. It made one long all the more to have some resolution to the administrative limbo of this American institution.

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