Review: Dutoit bids a dazzling ‘Au revoir’

Posted: May 19, 2012

Keen listeners might find a poignant layer or two around Charles Dutoit’s final stroke as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé ends on a nearly unbearably brilliant A major chord — the key German poet Christian Schubart believed messaged the hope, upon parting, of seeing one’s beloved again.

Verizon Hall’s Thursday night capacity audience seemed to be yearning already. A standing ovation for the conductor began gathering even before the music’s start, just after he glided on stage and neared the podium. But Dutoit had already pivoted for the upbeat to Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila and apparently missed his admirers’ incipient gesture.

The orchestra didn’t let him slip away so easily, throwing a backstage party after the concert in a musicians’ lounge decorated with peonies and photographs chronicling his three decades and several titles with the ensemble.

You just can’t escape the idea that Dutoit’s rare blend of gifts has been taken for granted. Everything he had to offer has been laid bare in these final two programs. He put together a scary-good concert version of Elektra last week. When pianist Maurizio Pollini canceled for this week, Dutoit was able to dip into his deep reserve of friends and engage Maria João Pires. The Lisbon-born pianist, a youthful 67, is the perfect embodiment of his taste: a supremely elegant musician with a strong point of view. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor has never been so searching. With a liquid sound — large but mellow — and considerable rhythmic freedom, Pires exploited each phrase for its essential poetry, allowing tempos to take her wherever interpretive truths may lie. In one section of the first movement, against muted horn, she sent her right hand off into a realm so expressive she made you realize that more technically boastful playing by others had missed the point. In the substantial bassoon part, Mark Gigliotti was a partner of equally singing qualities.

Ravel is a long way from Chopin, but the values in Pires’ playing, its abiding sensitivity, made an unexpected connection to Daphnis and Chloé. Way back at the dawn of the CD era, in the early 1980s, the piece was a startling declaration: of who Dutoit was, what a formidable ensemble the Montréal Symphony Orchestra had become, and the subtlety digital technology was capable of conveying. Dutoit was in his mid 40s when that recording was made, and, as anyone who has heard interpretations change from night to night would expect, his emphasis has moved. The sensuality is there. But in general, his handling of the score is more taut now. Clarity is what he sought and got from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, prepared beautifully by the group’s music director, David Hayes.

In tandem with these qualities, Dutoit came through with chance-taking that lifted his always professional leadership into a higher category. Jennifer Montone’s horn near the beginning encompassed both sweep and slurs carefully timed to catch expressive tissue between notes. Richard Woodhams picked out the high F natural that started his solo as if it fell within easy reach (it doesn’t) and yet charged it with sustained intensity. In other spots, accuracy took a slight hit — but in pursuit of a dramatic edge that made unnecessary any visualization of Pan, Syrinx, and the nymphs.

On this occasion, or perhaps for this piece, bigger ideas were in the air — an ease between ensemble and leader that has been present before, to be sure, but not consistently so. In the last program of Charles Édouard Dutoit as chief and yet not chief, the importance of authority fell away, opening up a relationship more evolved — and, if we’re lucky, evolving still.

Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$129. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.

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

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