Beethoven at Verizon Hall, with Berlin Wall bonuses

Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducted Beethoven's Ninth on a modest scale. DARIO ACOSTA / For The Inquirer
Ignat Solzhenitsyn conducted Beethoven's Ninth on a modest scale. DARIO ACOSTA / For The Inquirer
Posted: April 08, 2013

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia migrated for the first time in its own subscription series Sunday from its usual Perelman Theater quarters to the larger Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, and with good reason: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. It's a piece that needs more room.

Also significant, conductor laureate Ignat Solzhenitsyn (a much-seasoned Beethovenian) returned to conduct a smaller-scale, gently provocative performance that reminded you how seldom the composer's grandest symphony is heard with fine nuances.

That, alone, was plenty to justify the event, though the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts presented the concert as a larger commemoration of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall with add-ons: A good video portrait of the city by James B. Abbott and Jorge Cousineau, and not-so-good musical bonuses.

The Beethoven symphony's association with East Berlin's liberation was inevitable, given its choral finale celebrating unity in mankind. It was performed soon after the wall's fall in a Christmastime telecast with an ad hoc orchestra organized by a then gravely ill Leonard Bernstein, but conducted by him with great expanse.

Solzhenitsyn represents a more historically informed musical generation, which suits his smaller orchestral forces, roughly 60 percent of the norm. The usually imposing commentary from the lower strings in the final movement, for example, had no vibrato, revealing more specific musical details than the overall histrionic sweep.

His brisk tempos seem based on Beethoven's metronome markings, making the movements sound more alike. Within the movements, though, more light and shade and greater audibility of the winds revealed interplay that's often immersed in thicker string textures. Augmented by extra musicians (some from the Philadelphia Orchestra plus the Mendelssohn Club and a good vocal quartet including tenor Adam Frandsen), the performance had its missteps but was mostly solid.

The concert's first half had Klaus Meine's pop anthem "Wind of Change" and Smirnov's Epitaph for Victims of Communism - which had iconic value in decades past but have so little musical content that they don't belong with Beethoven. Then there was Solzhenitsyn's long midconcert lecture about the wall that was neither informative nor insightful.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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