Frühbeck, Watts rev up for Fla.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday.
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday. (STEVE J. SHERMAN)
Posted: February 05, 2013

Classical musicians tend to wear their mileage proudly. Conductors supposedly hit their stride at age 60, probably because they no longer care what people think of them, while pianists continue practicing their art without the pitch worries that plague senior violinists.

Two opposite maturity scenarios unfolded Friday as the Philadelphia Orchestra revved up for this week's Florida tour with frequent guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 79, and one of Philadelphia's proudest exports, pianist Andre Watts, 66, in a Beethoven/Hindemith program.

Having suffered health problems over the last year, Frühbeck conducted most of the Verizon Hall concert sitting down. But infirmity didn't keep him from stepping outside his Mediterranean-colored repertoire in favor of Hindemith's brainier, normally black-and-white Concert Music for Strings and Brass (Op. 50), whose contrapuntal writing had entire sections playing in boldly drawn unison. Frühbeck gave the piece more heat, even anguish, than I previously imagined. Why isn't it heard more often?

Elsewhere, the program oddly began with a Bach/Stokowski Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and ended with the Liszt potboiler Les Preludes. Odd is good.

In between all that, Watts played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor") with so little sympathy you wondered if he should cycle this concerto out of his repertoire. In the heroic first movement, the passagework was muddy and rushed, reducing Beethoven's grandly constructed gestures to mere effects.

The middle movement had some beautiful playing with thoughtfully organized phrases that reminded you what an empathetic musician Watts can be. But in the third movement, he pounded out the rhythms carelessly with an ugly metallic sonority.

More disturbing was the way he rushed entrances and exits throughout the first and third movements, as if consciously trying to get away from the orchestra. Whether he deployed it intentionally or not, creating false tension through lack of synchronization is one of the oldest tricks in the classical world, one that gives a sense that there's more happening musically than there really is. Yes, I'm risking dismemberment by saying anything bad about Watts. But nobody walks on water.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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