When Wolfgang Sawallisch was winding up his Philadelphia Orchestra tenure, some of his concert programs became curiously modest. Remember Richard Strauss’ 45-minute wind band piece, The Happy Workshop? In contrast, Charles Dutoit is veering toward the gargantuan in his last three subscription concerts as chief conductor. His Strauss choice is the opera Elektra later this week. And on Friday, he poured on waves of sound in Scriabin’s unapologetically extravagant Poem of Ecstasy with the Verizon Hall organ powering the climaxes from within.
The biggest point of interest was four excerpts from Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, starting with the kind of 10-note whole-tone scale that only this composer could infuse with so many poetic implications. Is each note an arrow piercing his martyred body, as suggested by centuries of semierotic iconography? Or is the scale a portal into the rarefied consciousness of saints? The piece has long been controversial: Quickly composed and not entirely orchestrated by the composer, the music may sound thin to some ears, but eloquently spare to mine. Every note counts and can now be heard as a harbinger of the metrically impulsive music of Olivier Messiaen.