The Philadelphia Orchestra's Washington subscription audience had its last stand last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. More precisely, it gave its last stand -- an ovation for the musicians who were abandoning the city, scuttling a relationship that began in 1902.
"I'm sad," one white-haired patron almost whispered, out in the foyer before the last concert ever in the Philadelphia's Washington subscription series. She had been attending these concerts since 1943. "It's terrible," said another.
One of the hardest hit was Robert Bialek, who began attending the Philadelphia concerts in 1930, became a concert entrepreneur and sponsored the concerts from 1962 to 1981. "I think it's a tragedy -- an unnecessary tragedy," he said. "It's awful that they should continue to play New York and not here." Angry but loyal, Bialek will travel to Philadelphia and even to New York to hear the orchestra in the future. Philadelphia enjoys a seller's market -- at least for now -- like the OPEC of a few years ago. There are other orchestras but only one Philadelphia. The National Symphony may be moving toward that status, but it is not there yet.
The audience stretched out the intermission (as has long been its custom), standing in the aisles and chatting. The Philadelphia concerts have always been as much social as musical occasions. "Some of them come here to be seen more than to hear," according to one veteran audience-watcher. But what they heard was a vintage concert.
Alvin Etler's Concerto for Wind Quintet and Orchestra may never reach the status of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and Brahms' Fourth Symphony, with which it shared the program. But it is an ingenious solution to a self-imposed problem: balancing the orchestral sound with those of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, solo, in dialogue and in a tiny alliance against a massive partner that might also be an adversary. It received a fine performance.
Victoria Mullova, soloist in the Tchaikovsky, is still young, and her interpretation will deepen as years go by. She played brilliantly (and with superbly controlled warmth in the slow movement) when she could be heard. But for long moments she was visible, not audible -- despite conductor Riccardo Muti's valiant efforts to keep her in perspective.
In the Brahms, when they didn't have to accommodate a soloist, Muti and the orchestra gave the performance of a lifetime -- a performance to leave the audience wanting more. There will be more next season, when the Philadelphia returns for a single concert under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society. But then it will be a one-night stand, one orchestra among many that use the Kennedy Center, not part of a continuing relationship. It may sound good, but it will never again be the same.