Night of Wrath: Philly Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, June 3, 2009
I realize this review is not “timely,” but I thought it might give an idea of what style you can expect from this blog. Plus it’s just sitting there on my hard drive, content waiting to be placed into the chamber and fired onto the Internet.
The year is 1995, I just got my driver’s license, and I need to make tapes to rock in my car. About nine months later, I had a few, well-chosen 90-minute cassettes to roll with. One featured Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata on the B-side. Another was mainly devoted to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return to the 36 Chambers, but used Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz” — the only classical music I knew that could thump as hard as the Wu — to fill the tape up.
I rocked those tapes driving to school, to comedy shows, to landscape jobs — particularly the Rachmaninov, whose third-movement slow section provided solace one time when I crossed Memorial Bridge into Virginia and meant to go south on Route 1 but ended up floundering about in D.C. after crossing the Key, whose thrilling apocalyptic joyful climax made me envision the tall buildings of Bethesda falling. So when the Philadelphia Orchestra decided to come to town under the direction of Charles Dutoit to play both “Totentanz” and the Symphonic Dances, I had to be there. Blast from the past, baybee!
“Totentanz” gets its thump mostly from its piano soloist, and Philly brought Jean-Yves Thibaudet to do the honors. The critics generally lauded Thibaudet’s performance of Liszt’s second piano concerto with the National Symphony, which I did not attend; the writeups raised my expectations, though, and the Frenchman did not disappoint. Though he lacks the swagger that you can imagine Liszt himself bringing to the party, he made a formidable force starting with the demonic tread of his low chords underneath brass snarling out the “Dies Irae” theme. The 13 variations that followed were sharply characterized, with Thibaudet capable of playing the outlines of a single chord underneath a ripe clarinet melody and making it sound even more magical, then turning around the next moment and unleashing artillery blasts of notes up and down the keyboard. Although sometimes the orchestra swamped the piano completely (at least from where I was sitting), Dutoit never let his accompaniment sag or outrun Thibaudet, and when he called on the brass to match Thibaudet’s intensity, they responded in full. Most importantly, both Thibaudet and Dutoit seemed to sense a dramatic thread connecting these disparate episodes, and the gusto with which they attacked the work made me sense it too. A riveting performance.
My obsession with the Symphonic Dances has only grown since my youth, yet Dutoit found things in the score that had eluded me thus far in my experience of with the piece. The waltz of the second movement staggers and hiccups just a little bit, and Dutoit pushed and pulled the rhythms so that you could really feel in your spine where Rachmaninov leads the beat astray, including litle ornamental sprays of notes that one could almost imagine as the small spills of a too-enthusiastic happy hour participant. This marked an improvement over the first movement, which had many felicities but never quite seemed to find the dance in the work’s title. The opening doodles in the winds didn’t have their usual coiled energy, from which the big thrusting chords that outline the first theme did not mark as dramatic a departure as they normally do. The alto saxophone came at his sighing, sorrowful melody too freely, forgetting that even when a dance rhythm is not being outlined in the accompaniment, it should still be felt in the melody. The followup essay of that melody by the string section over bare piano chords, though, displayed the Philly strings at their finest, rich and seductive without being glossy, and thus sounding all the chillier as Rachmaninov denied this big tune its normal Rachmaninovian harmonic accoutrements. They sounded lovely in the warm coda, too, establishing the relaxed mood that Dutoit so cannily jerked around in the second movement.
Dutoit paused for just a breath between the second and third movements, making the screech at the latter’s opening shock the audience, and from there it was off to the races, as well it should be. The rhythmic pulse beat hard throughout this movement, unifying its many episodes, and Dutoit played up every single time the Rachman flirts with the “Dies Irae” before its triumphal shattering brass invocation near the end of the work. Details were sharp, textures clear, Rachmaninov’s astonishing orchestration vivid, and what I now think of as the “Key Bridge big tune” got another extra boost from those Philly violins, beautifully molding the melody while keeping its rhythmic pulse clearly in mind. After we finally hit the “Dies Irae,” Dutoit kept up the interest through the grim march episode that succeeds it and the wild coda ending in four big chords and a gongstroke that echoed for precisely the measure it is supposed to. Ka-pow!
These works were framed oddly on the program by two Ravel pieces, neither of which I am terrifically fond of: the piano concerto for the left hand and “La Valse.” I am willing to admit that the lefty concerto is probably good and I am unable to apprehend it, but this is about the fourth time I’ve heard it live and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Thibaudet played his part with no mean eloquence, and the bassoons introduced the work with hypnotic low rumblings, but from there I’m lost. “La Valse,” on the other hand, seems to me to be clearly a useless piece, about twice as long as it needs to be and not half as entertaining as it thinks it is. (Yes, we get it, dude: There can never be another carefree waltz after World War I. I heard you the first time. Do you have anything else to say?) Coming after Rachmaninov’s dramatic power and clear, sustained musical argument, “La Valse” had little chance of being anything other than an anticlimax, and that was precisely what it was.
Nevertheless, I got what I came for: Memorable performances of two of my favorite works in the whole classical canon. Philly, I hate your sports teams, but I love your cheesesteaks and I’m becoming very fond of your orchestra.