Orchestra doesn't sweat Tchaikovsky in heat

Conductor Cristian Macelaru found seriousness in Tchaikovsky's work where it is more implied than stated.
Conductor Cristian Macelaru found seriousness in Tchaikovsky's work where it is more implied than stated.
Posted: July 02, 2012

Only mad dogs and Tchaikovsky-ites were likely to brave the June heat wave on Friday at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, where the Philadelphia Orchestra plays its annual 1812 Overture program with fireworks.

It was a tough night. Extra water and ice were positioned around the stage area for the orchestra players. And even among listeners who didn't have to move to make the music happen, you heard intermission comments like, "I think my ankles are sweating" or "I think my earlobes are sweating" — expressed more as resigned observations than complaints.

Yet a good-sized audience was there (I'd estimate 3,000), and the orchestra played as if the circumstances were ideal — and not necessarily with a program that permitted autopilot. The orchestra's conductor Cristian Macelaru had the good idea to play Tchaikovsky's The Tempest, a so-called "fantasy overture" that's graphically descriptive, sort of a cross between Mendelssohn's The Hebrides and the stormier sections of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6.

As with many composers' early works, performers have to be a bit more interventionist to bring out what the composer was going for but not quite achieving. And indeed, Macelaru is the kind of Tchaikovsky-ite who can find gravity where that quality is more implied than stated, as well as finding the music behind orchestral flourishes that could easily seem cheap. There's no denying, however, that the composer came up with about six ways to end the piece and used them all. Somewhere around Ending No. 5, I caught myself praying for some semblance of a breeze in the Mann Center. But up until then, I was gripped.

The Philadelphia Orchestra often showcases promising Curtis Institute of Music students during the summer: Their talent is rarely in question, but their repertoire sometimes reflects the kind of musician they aspire to be more than where their current strengths lie. British pianist Alexander Ullman, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Friday, connected with the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 much more often than not. But it's probably not his piece. Though it's good to hear pianists who don't pound their way through a concerto that sometimes seems to ask for it, Ullman sometimes downplayed the music's heroism to a fault. Particularly in the big finish to the final movement, you wondered if he had the fingers for it. In fact, he was saving his depth charges for the third movement, which can easily be anticlimactic, but in this performance, was not.

What distinguished the performance was his lyrical playing, and there's plenty of opportunity for that here. His phrases were organized in ways that felt personal, intimate, and captivating, even to the point that cadenzas had a nocturnal confessional quality. I'd love to hear him again, but not in this concerto.

The rest of the Tchaikovsky program was extremely well played — the lightweight Capriccio Italien felt so important it seemed like a rather different piece — and the 1812 Overture made its usual strong impression, but this time with the cannon fire (which isn't so fashionable at this point in history) more integrated into the overall orchestral texture. As it should be.

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

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