The Philadelphia Orchestra at Longwood, lilting and wilting

Guest violinist Nicola Benedetti soloed in the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto."
Guest violinist Nicola Benedetti soloed in the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto." (The Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: July 21, 2013

'We love coming out here," conductor Cristian Macelaru told the Longwood Gardens audience on Thursday night, "though today, the reception was slightly warmer than we anticipated."

Such levity was welcome in the sweltering heat of the Philadelphia Orchestra's outdoor concert here of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Behind it, though, were questions of how the show should go on.

On Tuesday, the New York Philharmonic performed only half of its outdoor concert at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx due to the heat, prompting audience boos and chants of "We want Dvorak," referring to the canceled part of the program.

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Orchestra canceled a sound-check rehearsal at Longwood. The orchestra had rehearsed the program Monday in Verizon Hall, but that meant soloist Nicola Benedetti, a glamorous, acclaimed violinist with a major European career, would wing it.

But for all of her apparent poise, she was on the verge of tears by the end of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto's first movement: Her neck was so sweaty she couldn't maintain solid positioning of her violin.

Between movements, she borrowed a shoulder rest from principal second violinist Kimberly Fisher. Suddenly, her intonation was solid and her tone became charismatic. Hair-trigger interplay with the orchestra in the final movement came off perfectly. Maybe it wasn't her best Tchaikovsky, but it was enough to make you want to investigate her Decca-label recording of the piece.

Should that show have gone on?

The mellow Longwood audience wasn't likely to boo if it hadn't. But unlike the show in New York, this concert had approximately 2,000 paying customers. Friday's concert of light classics (also rehearsed indoors earlier in the week) had 2,000 more - and a constituency, weighted more toward Wilmington, that the orchestra might not normally reach.

So they got Dvorak - the Symphony No. 8 in the second half of Thursday's concert, but through an amplification system with shallow, tinny sound. Farther back in the seating area, the sound was somewhat better, though perhaps only a fraction of the performance's personality (and associate conductor Macelaru has lots of that) reached the listeners. Still, exit comments were favorable, mostly about wanting to hear Benedetti indoors - something the orchestra owes her after Thursday's combat duty.

"We're working on how the orchestra fits here, and how it could be better," Tom Warner, Longwood's director of performing arts, acknowledged Thursday night.

Past Philadelphia visits have been in the fountain area, on a stage that had to be created from scratch over five days' time. The Thursday and Friday concerts were in an area called the Meadow on a 53-by-40-foot stage hauled in by truck that required two days of setup time. The stage framed the orchestra in white Victorian swags, a pleasantly surreal touch amid the bucolic setting. If only the sound were better (lots better).


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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