There are times when the Philadelphia Orchestra seems to be just another one of the big leaguers, and then there are times, like the second half of its program last night at the Kennedy Center, when it seems to be in some exaled class all by itself. With music director Ricardo Muti at the helm, the orchestra gave a sterling account of music from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" that managed to highlight the ensemble's every strength.
Like the ballets of Stravinsky, this particular score has always stood very well on its own, and Muti was particularly adept at making it as vivid a narrative as the actual dance. The balcony scene, for example, emerged most effectively, the cellos singing the principal theme with an aching tenderness that was impossible to misunderstand. At its close, the orchestra achieved a diminuendo of such model proportions that it was criminal of the eager coughers to drown it out prematurely.
The "Death of Tybalt" gave each section a chance to demonstrate formidable precision in a rendition that contained more than a few of what we locals tend to think of as the Rostropovich punch. In such moments as the tomb scene, it was possible to sense through the searing intensity of the strings and the fierceness of the brass the full impact of the timeless tragedy.
The first half of the program contained two works by Schumann, the less than memorable "Hermann and Dorothea" overture and the infrequently heard Cellor Concerto. The latter featured Lynn Harrell, whose impeccable phrasing and vibrant tone were ideally suited to the sensual music. Muti's approach to the piece was not always persuasive, but the exceptional second movement found him and the orchestra most sensitive accompanists to Harrell's lyric touch.