Orchestra concerts break big pieces into small parts

Posted: June 25, 2007

Woman at opera house: "Ah, there is something about Mozart!"

Woody Allen character: "Well, I think you're probably responding to his music."

- Love and Death (1975)

The truth about what makes Mozart Mozart tends to reduce to silliness even his most ardent listeners. Like Woody Allen's woman at the opera, Philadelphia Orchestra associate conductor Rossen Milanov was heard last week speaking in such generalities about Mozart he could have been describing any of a hundred composers. But when he put aside his Music 101 to pick up the baton, the music spoke trenchantly. You're never ungrateful to hear Mozart. There's just something about him.

Milanov was occasionally quite helpful in speaking about the music in three highly unusual "best-of" concerts by the orchestra. Wednesday night was devoted to Mozart; Thursday, rather alarmingly, gave all nine Beethoven symphonies (sort of); and Friday was a Tchaikovsk-a-thon. Milanov delivered a lovely description of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Overture," describing where to listen for the fight scene and telling us how the harp part paints a portrait of the stars. Then the orchestra performed the entire piece. The talk-and-play format works. We understand the music better. Audiences concentrate harder when coached on where to focus their attention. The art wins, the performers win, the audience wins.

These three concerts, a coda to the orchestra's main season in Verizon Hall, occupy the slot on the orchestra's schedule for experimenting with presentation. They replace the Mozart festival once led by Peter Oundjian. What was notable about this year's concerts was that the orchestra broke the single-movement barrier. The group has played single movements before, even parts of pieces. But this was a new level of deconstruction. The Mozart concert featured the entire Symphony No. 40, but broken up with different pieces between movements. The Beethoven concert was made up of one movement from each of the nine symphonies. The Tchaikovsky, with its excerpts from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, hit the ear most naturally, since ballets are routinely repurposed into suites.

It was possible to like all three concerts - their friendliness, the gratefulness of the audience - while feeling squeamish about the concept. There's no denying Beethoven was robbed Thursday night; the concert came across as a series of non sequiturs. Wednesday night was the scene of a particularly egregious swindle. The orchestra imported superb London pianist Leon McCawley for Mozart's uncharacteristically anxious D Minor (K. 466) piano concerto. The pianist played the first movement, and then (as planned) left the stage to make way for the second movement of the Symphony No. 40 as the conciliatory second movement of the piano concerto was left to fend for itself in the mind's ear. Both concerto and symphony suffered an emotional net loss as a result.

Milanov at least explained why he chose, say, the third movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 instead of the shocking first movement. While you might have argued with his choice and the idea of excluding three-fourths of the material, you could at least hope that the cameos left some listeners charging from the concert hall on a happy path of discovery to symphonic closure.

The orchestra's level of playing on all three nights suggests a question the ensemble needs to weigh carefully in planning next year's concerts: Was there enough rehearsal time? Milanov made no great artistic statements, and while it is true that the orchestra sounded passable to the casual listener, problems tumbled out all over the place: Unsteady tempos, intonation problems, disagreements about entrances shared by different instrumental sections - all garden-variety glitches fixed with smart rehearsing.

Does the orchestra think it's all right to have a standard for one kind of audience - say, listeners at recent tour concerts in Chicago and Los Angeles - and a lower one for listeners back home?

"Best of" may have applied to the repertoire here, but such a superlative as it relates to the playing must wait for another time.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

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