A gifted night for conductor

Violinist James Ehnes offered a marvelous Mendelssohn concerto.
Violinist James Ehnes offered a marvelous Mendelssohn concerto.

Dutoit presided over Swiss showcase for the orchestra's winds and strings.

Posted: February 11, 2012

Charles Dutoit always has been a canny curator, but deep significance seems to lie beneath his repertoire choices between now and the last of his days in Philadelphia.

Thursday night you could sense his mind at work in programming Frank Martin's relatively obscure Concerto for Seven Winds, Percussion and String Orchestra. The piece was championed by fellow Swiss Ernest Ansermet, an early guiding light for Dutoit. Marrying those sympathies with the Philadelphia Orchestra's saturated strings and highly polished winds would seem to unleash all sorts of synergies.

And it did, though it also shined an unintended light on realities that Dutoit never could have foreseen when he put the Martin on the docket more than a year ago. Of the seven wind players ringing Dutoit's podium, two are departing for other orchestras, one will be trading his chair here for a teaching post, and one more has already auditioned for a lesser ensemble.

On one level, given the imminent exit of Dutoit himself, this was a gathering of talent limned in elegiac grisaille. But the piece doesn't allow for much wallowing. Like Dutoit, its provenance is Swiss, and the soul French. Flecked with Ravel and Stravinsky (another Francophile), the 1949 Concerto has septet members stepping into the spotlight, but then receding to form the wind section of an orchestra.

Daniel Matsukawa's bassoon solo was doleful, stylish, and singing. Timpanist Don S. Liuzzi played on an equal playing field of rich complexities of sound. All the soloists, in fact - flutist Jeffrey Khaner, oboist Richard Woodhams, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, hornist Jennifer Montone, trumpeter David Bilger, and trombonist Nitzan Haroz (soon to be of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) - were spectacularly assured and refined. The gift they gave Dutoit, it seems, was a night in which the student surpassed the master; if recorded and released, it would make Ansermet's take only a step on the way to ideal.

Also on the program were concertos of other strains. Violinist James Ehnes' Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor might have been the most emotionally centered and technically spotless take on the piece I've encountered. If there were stretches where more edge might have rounded out the piece's dramatic range, there also were stupendous moments of sweetness. That tone was something to treasure.

In Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, of course, nearly everyone (or every section) is soloist. And the solo work was exceptional. More remarkable still was the ensemble, for which Dutoit could claim primary authorship. Interpretively, it wasn't about revelation but rather homogeneity. Dutoit has a way of rounding the work's angular rhythms and making them sound as inevitable as a waltz. Instrumental sections blended tone qualities. Virtuosity was abundant, yet never showy. In any orchestra, a little podium authority can draw good things. What Dutoit knows is that with this orchestra, a lot of authority is the only clear path to great.


Additional performance:
8 p.m. Saturday in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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