Two favorites of Stokowski seemed dated

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played the Shostakovich "Violin Concerto No. 1," bookended by Stokowski chestnuts.
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played the Shostakovich "Violin Concerto No. 1," bookended by Stokowski chestnuts. (CHRISTIAN STEINER)
Posted: February 04, 2012

This summer's Philadelphia Orchestra celebration of Leopold Stokowski unofficially started early with the guest-conducting debut of the San Francisco Opera's Nicola Luisotti on Thursday night. In true Stoky style, the baton disappeared and his fingers conjured plush orchestral colors in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade  and Bach transcribed for orchestra, both of which were Stokowski calling cards during his years as music director (1912-1941).

The question is: How relevant are such performances in the 21st century?

Stokowski's orchestration of the famous "Chaccone" movement from Bach's Partita No. 2, first heard in 1930, means something totally different now. Stokowski's mission was partly to translate that great music, written for unaccompanied violin, into something more engaging for a wider, orchestrally oriented audience; Bach needs no such help now that his violin sonatas are standard encores among visiting violinists.

So one blinks in disbelief as the music is outfitted in neon, flashing and changing every few seconds, though ultimately settling into a sound world suggesting Elgar's Enigma Variations. To someone who subscribes to historically authentic performance practice, the transcription feels monumentally perverse, but, I suppose, worth a few giggles.

Scheherazade was also a Stoky chestnut, its sumptuous orchestration being a great showcase for the Philadelphia sound. And it still is, especially thanks to Thursday's high-personality contributions from the principal players, starting with concertmaster David Kim. As an opera conductor, Luisotti knows how to give each musical event a diva entrance, and a dramatic exit as well. Each episode was molded with effectively flexible tempos, and with a fine ear for sonority. Daniel Matsukawa's superb bassoon solo was anchored with double basses that glowed softly.

Nonetheless, I was ready for this five-star Scheherazade to be over. And I sensed that the audience, which was properly grateful, wasn't entirely buying it either. We're inured to the grander, deeper, more meticulously structured orchestral wizardry of Mahler - in contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov, who side-stepped thematic development with more superficial coloristic transformations (sort of like Ravel's Bolero only three times as long).

Between the two Stokies lay Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, a bombshell of a piece inspired by Stalinist Russia, featuring one of the piece's foremost exponents, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. This piece encourages levels of interpretive frenzy - to which she easily rises - as exhilarating Russian dances mutate into weapons of mass destruction.

Salerno-Sonnenberg's playing also had unusual discipline on Thursday. Of the four movements, the first and third brood at great length, but, in her hands, not in the same way. The first was an existential lament, as if Shostakovich was suffering for the world's sins. Salerno-Sonnenberg's restrained colors in the first movement became something more pale and exhausted in the third, suggesting Shostakovich in suicide-note mode. The fast movements were as exciting and physical as they should be. Her unflattering concert garb, however, needs revision. Could Yuja Wang please take her shopping?


 Additional performance:


8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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

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