Last night's Philadelphia Orchestra program at the Kennedy Center presented one of the most bizarre couplings imaginable, resulting in a first half close to soporific and a second half passionate almost to the point of exhaustion.
It is impossible to guess what prompted conductor Riccardo Muti to open with "The Seven Last Words," a musical meditation on the Crucifixion in seven adagio movements written by Hadyn for a Spanish Lenten service. Difficult to sustain in any case, due to the succession of slow tempos, the work out of the season seemed drained of purpose. Muti's approach treated the exposed lines like an exercise in listening for the reduced orchestral forces, and perhaps this was his purpose. If so, it hardly justified the bland results. Though there were some finely controlled phrases and delicately balanced passages, the expressive opportunities, particularly in the frequent repeated notes, were ignored.
The interpretive pendulum shot to the other side in the second half when the dynamic soloist Kyung-Wha Chung turned the Brahms Violin Concerto into an electrifying personal statement. Pouring her entire being into the piece, Chung found every emotional clue Brahms dropped -- and then some. Her extraordinary rapport with the orchestra, which under Muti proved superbly responsive to her playing, transformed the first two movements into exquisite, intimate exchanges. If the final rondo brought out some excesses from both Chung and the orchestra, it was, nonetheless, exciting stuff.