The applause began for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Riccardo Muti before the final chord of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 had stopped resounding Monday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and the storm of the audience's appreciation swelled rapidly until it had even more power than the Tchaikovsky's massive climaxes.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's Kennedy Center audience has a sort of hereditary loyalty, but tradition accounted for only a part of the reaction. Most of the applause came -- quite rightly -- because the Philadelphians had given the music an outstanding performance. It may have been a little short of emotional involvement here and there, but the music allows that. This is the least neurotic of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies; much of its appeal lies in the interplay of contrasting instrumental textures -- hard and soft, light and heavy, bright and dark masses of sound -- and if the musicians get the notes and sonorities right the rest takes care of itself.
The Phildelphians got the notes right, and the business of weaving sound textures is one of the things they do best -- one of the things at which they have become more adept in the eight years Muti has been in charge. There were moments when raw emotion came surging up through the music, but mostly the orchestra simply followed the directions of the composer, who was one of history's great technicians of orchestral sound, and the results worked like turning on an electric light.
The concert's centerpiece was a sort of Philadelphia specialty: the Violin Concerto of Philadelphian and Curtis Institute alumnus Samuel Barber, with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (another Curtis veteran) as soloist. For two of its three movements, the music is mostly a leap of pure lyric spirit -- bright, soaring, colorful and joyful. The finale, played at lightning speed, is a test of agility, reflexes, accuracy and, more subtly, the ability to turn virtuoso display into musical communication. Salerno-Sonnenberg was superb on all counts, and Muti supported her efforts and supplied contrasts effectively.
The program opened with Prokofiev's delightful little "Classical" Symphony, played crisply and with beautiful balance, though the Gavotta movement could have been played with a little more lightness and grace.