Since the Philadelphia Orchestra comes here six times a year and has been a regular guest since long before the National Symphony was founded, one can take them for granted -- just through frequent repetition. One walks in waiting to be dazzled. But for someone who hasn't heard them in a while, there may still be an element of surprise.
Before last night's concert, I had forgotten just how effortless they make the most rigorous passages sound. There was a good conductor, the Swiss Charles Dutoit, who heads the Montreal Symphony. And there was a fearfully demanding program.
The usual problem with the first work, Haydn's Symphony No. 83, "La Poule," is to keep from overdoing it -- a particular difficulty for many very powerful orchestras. The Philadelphia simply let it flow in its own supple way. Phrases were not overinflected. With reduced strings, balances unfolded with almost no need for correction by the conductor. And articulation, as during the entire concert, was brilliant.
The same was true of Ravel's G-major piano concerto, a jazzy and lyric creation of this century -- with Peter Serkin playing the solo. It requires the same chamber music-like approach in which the players solve most of the problems among themselves. Serkin sees the piano as part of the ensemble, rather than a flashy solo voice. His tone was cool, his phrasing almost Mozartean and his digital control remarkable.
The second half ended with a Philadelphia specialty, Ravel's "La Valse." Before that there was one of Stravinsky's finest and most neglected works, the stark and powerful Symphony in Three Movements. As an artistic expression of the experience of World War II, an annotator compares the symphony to Picasso's "Guernica" -- an apt comparison in terms of character, if not in scale.