This will be the season of the Brahms sesquicentennial (he was born on May 7, 1833), and early shots of what will certainly become a barrage were fired last night in the Kennedy Center by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The programming (the Third Symphony and the Violin Concerto) was not strikingly imaginative, but it is hard to find much orchestral music by Brahms that is worth playing and not heard regularly. The prospects are more exciting for festivals of his chamber music, which already are being planned by the Library of Congress and the Wolf Trap Barns.
In many ways, the Brahms part of the program came as an anticlimax to the opening number: Ormandy's orchestration of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which differs microscopically from that of his predecessor in Philadelphia, Leopold Stokowski. This is hardly adventurous programming either, and of course it makes baroque purists foam at the mouth. But it is intensely enjoyable -- in fact, magnificent -- for those who can forget about Bach, relax and relish it as an exercise in orchestral sonorities. That's how it was played last night, and it worked superbly. It made the Philadelphia Orchestra sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra -- a feat which, according to reports, it has not always managed recently in the Concert Hall.
The Symphony, too, sounded like the Philadelphia Orchestra and even like the Brahms Symphony in F; but the pace was often slack, the structure lacking in tension. The experience showed that exciting sound is not enough to make an exciting interpretation.
In the Concerto, there was excitement aplenty -- true musical excitement in the last movement, when violinist Franco Gulli finally had the situation under control and the tempo began galloping toward the final cadences. But the first movement's excitement was more a matter of suspense: Would Gulli manage to overcome his early problems of pitch and balance?
He did finally, after turning away from the audience for a moment and retuning quickly during an orchestral tutti passage. He also beefed up his essentially lyric style into the kind of dramatic utterance that this concerto requires for the finale, after luxuriating in the melodic charm of the slow movement.