One could hardly have been made more conscious of the extent of the loss of the Philadelphia Orchestra as a frequent visitor here than during its concert Monday at the Kennedy Center.
With Erich Leinsdorf conducting the epochal Mahler Fifth Symphony, the brilliant -- and, in the last 40 minutes or so, ecstatic -- playing reached heights of accuracy, strength and eloquence that only four or five other orchestras in the world reach with regularity.
In this final season out of 84 in Washington, there is one more Philadelphia concert to go, but it would be hard for that one to exceed, for instance, the passion and exquisite attention to harmonic, tonal and dynamic detail that Leinsdorf and the players brought to the fourth of the five movements, that heartbreaking adagietto that Leonard Bernstein chose to comfort the mourners at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral.
And there was the incomparably assured brass playing throughout the symphony, which lasts considerably more than an hour and taxes an orchestra to the limit. The horns have the most spectacular roles, especially the first horn -- with passages like that incredibly tricky motto that opens the scherzo. It is almost never played exactly on the beat, but could hardly have been more precise than on Monday night.
Likewise, the solo trumpet that opens the symphony with the funeral march, impeccably observed the marking of piano without even the slightest diminution of tonal body.
And there was the string playing: I don't think another orchestra could exceed the lushness of the low strings in the beguiling waltz-like theme played against wind cross-rhythms in the second movement. Have no fear, the legendary "Philadelphia sound" is alive and well.
In the program notes, there was a mention of Mahler's comment to Sibelius that "the symphony should be all-inclusive like the world." He never wrote a work that embraces a wider span than this one.
Leinsdorf started off a little restrained; those stormy sieges in the opening movement were not as frenzied as they sometimes are. And, at that point, one wondered if this was not going to be one of those performances more remarkable for the way it was executed than for the way it was interpreted.
But by the scherzo, movement three and a work of such force and range that it is almost a symphony within a symphony, Leinsdorf and the Philadelphia just kept gathering steam. The momentum took on greater and greater tension, but never at the expense of the pure playing.
From then on, the music was of white-hot intensity.
At the end, obviously overwhelmed by the playing of the Philadelphia, Leinsdorf made a gesture to the orchestra that I cannot recall ever seeing before. The 74-year-old conductor -- who has a reputation for being cool, sometimes chilly -- stood silent on the podium after the music was over. Then, ignoring the ovation, he leapt down and pulled the plainly astonished concertmaster (in this case, Associate Concertmaster William de Pasquale) from his seat and embraced him in a big bear hug.
One understood why.
Before intermission, the Philadelphia's English horn player, Louis Rosenblatt, played a concerto for his instrument by Vincent Persichetti. It is a lyric work of moderate expressiveness.
But, then, what else do you put on the same program with the Mahler Fifth?