Chamber Orchestra's Brossé stages a creative debut

New conductor Dirk Brossé rehearses with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
New conductor Dirk Brossé rehearses with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
Posted: September 28, 2010

Conductor Dirk Brossé was out to charm his new audience Sunday in his first Kimmel Center subscription concert since becoming music director of Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He addressed listeners with a lightness and humor one couldn't expect from predecessor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and dedicated his new composition, Fanfare for Philadelphia, directly to them.

His music making, though, was anything but ingratiatingly safe. Seat belts were warranted for Mozart's Symphony No. 41 - not just for all the unexpected left turns and dramatic braking, but to keep you from leaving during his long, dramatic pauses.

I exaggerate to make a point: Brossé's audiences are dealing with an individualistic, slightly eccentric personality, a description that comes with more hope than judgment. His interventionist approach to Mozart isn't unprecedented in Europe - much-discussed Mozart specialist René Jacobs has more extreme tempo shifts - but is new to this community. Those who parted company with ex-Philadelphia Orchestra music director Christoph Eschenbach's use of Luftpausen - air breaks - might have a bigger problem with Brossé's similar tendencies, which come not from Eschenbach's pre-World War II Wilhelm Furtwangler tradition but up-to-date notions of historically informed performance.

The sparing use of vibrato - which the orchestra executed with security and enhanced sonority - was only the starting point Sunday. If one assumes that score contains only a fraction of the performance markings that were taken for granted in the 18th century, Brossé was not wrong to add crescendos and numerous tempo shifts for sections within movements. Where the score contains a simple "forte," he delivered a punchy sforzando or a high-contrast fortissimo. This was anything but chic, mellifluous Mozart, but it never seemed careless or willful. Problems lay in Brossé's sense of rhythm, which sometimes was too heavy handed to convey musical information. With slower-than-usual tempos necessary to accommodate all that was on Brossé's mind - plus a tendency to hold fermatas even longer than Lorin Maazel - he courted tedium and made the performance seem, at times, like a dissection as well as an interpretation.

Similar lack of momentum had subtle consequences in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. Venezuelan soloist Gabriela Martinez was a glamorous presence, both visually and in the Alicia de Larrocha-like coloring she brought to this less-than-sturdy product of the composer's early years. Absent was the sense of line that can so effortlessly buoy you from one charming passage to the next - perhaps due to Brossé's habit of breaking the music into sections.

As a composer, Brossé's sensibility in Fanfare for Philadelphia clearly hails from John Williams' cinematic timing and Leonard Bernstein's harmonic language. More than a fanfare, the piece was a compressed theme and variations, each section having its own orchestral sound, much in the spirit of Philadelphia's well-defined neighborhoods. Broad cinematic strokes were everywhere, stopping short only at quoting the theme from Rocky.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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