Upwardly mobile, from Weill to Strauss The Philadelphians began with "The Seven Deadly Sins" and ended with a suite from "Der Rosenkavalier."

Posted: January 03, 2004

The dawn of a new year inevitably comes with resolutions and self-examination, usually with existential questions such as, "Am I a jerk?"

The ever-useful Philadelphia Orchestra provided a grid for that sort of thing with its first-ever local performance of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Seven Deadly Sins. Written in 1933, it's a series of songlike episodes from the odyssey of two sisters traveling the United States to earn money in many disreputable ways. Utility value aside, the piece was the dominating presence in an excellent left-of-center program with guest conductor Carlos Kalmar yesterday at Verizon Hall.

Each sin is examined in the setting of a particular city, probably chosen at random. Philadelphia, for example, is the site of the gluttony episode, though I doubt librettist Brecht was inspired by cheesesteaks. Like most Brecht pieces of that time, themes of sexual and mercantile victimization in modern society steal the focus from small stuff like gluttony, envy or sloth.

Musically, the piece represents the culmination of Weill's German period as well as a singular meeting ground of his symphonic manner and more popular, Threepenny Opera-style of theater music. It's his single greatest work. Though he went on to write great things for Broadway, The Seven Deadly Sins is one of his few pieces to override a badly aged libretto with refined lyricism and orchestral sophistication.

Its absence in the concert hall is explained by vocal casting: The central role of Anna, written for Lotte Lenya, implodes without the right balance of cultivation and sleaze. In other words, it's an assignment for German chanteuse Ute Lemper. She resembles Garbo with a touch of anorexia and sings with the metallic cutting power of a pop stylist, though with the intelligent word coloring of a German art-song interpreter. Her presence is beguilingly dangerous: She projects the nothing-to-lose candor of a street person, blurring the line between inner and outer life, things private and public, with an undercurrent of craziness that makes the unacceptable seem dandy. Brecht's text can seem smug, naive and disingenuous, but with Lemper, it's an oracle of social conscience.

There's also a vocal quartet representing the heroine's family back home in Louisiana. Pillared on the ends by tenor Richard Troxell and bass Matthew Arnold, no irony was overlooked. Conductor Kalmar delivered the most orchestrally passionate rendition of the piece I've ever heard.

With Brecht on the brain, the rest of the program became a study in social classes, progressing from The Seven Deadly Sins' bottom-feeders into the cheerful middle class with a smartly performed rendition of Haydn's Symphony No. 98 and then ascending into Viennese aristocracy with a concert suite from Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier. That last one brought down the house.

Though Kalmar used my least favorite suite from the opera - it's too crowded with musical events to be coherent - his sense of style won out: He lingered lovingly and poetically over transitions and harmonic resolutions with endearing schmaltz and none of the vulgarity heard from Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in May. The final moments became an orgy of Philadelphia sound. Loving it was mandatory.

Kalmar has been a fixture in the orchestra's seasons at the Mann Center, and amid the inevitably hasty rehearsal circumstances of those concerts, I had begun to doubt his talent. Not now, on the basis of these performances and the delicious assemblage of music for the program. Subsequent performances are highly recommended. So are wool socks: On Friday, the air-conditioning seemed to be on.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com.

Additional performances are at 8 p.m. today and Monday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $30-$120. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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