The Philadelphia Orchestra played at the Kennedy Center last night for the first time since the death on March 12 of the man who created the orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. The concert, under Erich Leinsdorf, was not advertised as a tribute, but it might as well have been.
Virtually every part of the performance -- from the lean syncopation of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, to the tender nuances of Mozart's Ninth Piano Concerto (with John Browning) to the final orchestral excerpts from Wagner's "Ring," was magnificent.
The Wagner, though, went even further than that. There were passages from "Siegfried Ascending the Flaming Rock" from Act 3 of "Siegfried," followed by the famed "Rhine Journey" and the finale of "Die Go tterda mmerung." The performance was so fine, especially in the radiant brass, that the normally all-business conductor ending up applauding the orchestra, after the orchestra had applauded the conductor.
The precision of the orchestral textures was remarkable. There was the pure brass sonority throughout the work. But there was also the delicacy, and lyricism, in the motif of expiation at the very end.
This same quality was heard in the Mozart. Browning was in especially fine form in this earliest of the Mozart piano concertos with real substance, passionately lyrical in the slow movement, which is its crowning point, and full of wit in the last movement. This concerto is not a display piece, it is simply lovely, fluent music, and both Browning and Leinsdorf made the most of that -- in a performance that would have been the centerpiece of the evening but for the glorious Wagner that came after it.
The earlier Stravinsky symphony was a grand foil to all of this. Where the Wagner was just about as expansive as it could be, the Stravinsky was linear. Its intricacies, especially the rhythms that are so multitudinous that they suggest Bach at times, are addictive. The work has that same kind of alluring metrical complexity. The symphony is one of Stravinsky's most tightly organized works, and one of his finest, a fact amply reflected in last night's splendid performance.