By Robert Battey
Friday, May 28, 2010; C03
The still-fabulous Philadelphians made their first appearance at the Music Center at Strathmore on Wednesday night in a conservative, all-Russian program. The Philadelphia Orchestra is trying to move forward after years of uncertainty; on top of financial woes common to everyone else, it is still looking for a music director since the unplanned-for early departure of Christoph Eschenbach a few years ago. And its CEO and board chairman have been in their jobs less than a year, before which both positions went unfilled for some time.
But the musical product is still dazzling. Charles Dutoit, the orchestra's chief conductor, is handling his caretaker role with grace and dignity and, more important, is maintaining the orchestra's vaunted precision and virtuosity. The lush, string-centric sound that Stokowski and Ormandy cultivated in Philadelphia for decades has been replaced by a leaner, more protean sonority. This is industry-wide -- with the much greater diversity in personnel than they had a couple of generations ago, the top American orchestras are now more musically agile, but also sound more alike.
As a senior statesman of the podium (but who was passed over for the orchestra's music directorship), Dutoit has nothing left to prove and doesn't try to stretch the orchestra or its audiences, either in this or in previous Washington appearances. Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" Overture, a hackneyed staple of youth orchestras everywhere, is not what a world-class ensemble should be taking on tour, no matter how good it makes it sound.
The rest of the program, though, was worth the price of admission. Pianist Nikolai Lugansky delivered an astonishing Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3. He neither fought against nor tried to tame this fearsome beast; rather he rode it, showed it off and let it roar. There was never any banging; his fingers were steel mallets or gossamer butterflies, as needed, and he clearly knew, phrase by phrase, whether he was playing solo or chamber music. Although Lugansky arrived too soon at the climax of the big first-movement cadenza and had nowhere to go for a while, this was still a superb overall rendition of this warhorse. Some of these players had sat with players who sat with those who recorded the concerto with Rachmaninoff himself, and the warm broth they provided was positively ambrosial.
Stravinsky's "Petrushka" is right in the orchestra's sweet spot as well, depending, as it does, on high-wire solo playing. Each of the principals delivered gleaming perfection, while the simultaneous meters in the first and third tableaux were as child's play to the ensemble. Dutoit presided with relaxed mastery, and the colors leapt out. The raucous applause at the end, as each soloist stood, was like the intros at a Caps game.
Battey is a freelance writer.