Orchestra can take lightening up too far

Pianist Lise de La Salle was an audience success in her Philadelphia debut, playing Liszt.
Pianist Lise de La Salle was an audience success in her Philadelphia debut, playing Liszt. (LYNN GOLDSMITH)
Posted: October 20, 2013

Crowd-pleasing has its price, especially when one leaves the Philadelphia Orchestra two weeks in a row having experienced many visceral thrills but none that lasts much beyond the Kimmel Center's door.

The symphonic world has its share of sound-effects pieces. Chief among them are the tone poems of Ottorino Respighi, a first-class opera composer whose musical portraits of Rome are his best-known pieces and magnificently orchestrated, with nothing very important to say. Nobody is going to make The Pines of Rome, whose suite of musical descriptions includes birdcalls, more buffed and sparkly than did veteran guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos on Thursday at Verizon Hall.

But this was a case of dessert masquerading as a main course - in a program that showed other great composers at less than their best, and in a season that, with occasional pockets of challenging programs, is unusually weighted toward middle-brow favorites that require an extraordinary performance to keep from seeming like a rerun.

Respighi was joined by Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, a piece with innovations important 150 years ago but that is basically a one-dimensional claptrapper that doesn't allow much interpretive leeway - even to a high-personality pianist such as Lise de la Salle.

This young French pianist gave the concerto a certain amount of Mozartean grace and precision, but couldn't go too far in that direction without undercutting the cliched heroism that dominates the concerto. Occasionally, too, she seemed to be chasing this technically challenging piece rather than commanding it.

This is a pianist I've been keen to hear live for years on the basis of recordings and broadcasts. At least she was an audience success in her debut here; perhaps she'll return with better repertoire.

Beethoven's Overture to King Stephen (with its eccentric digressions and forced sense of occasion) was paired with the same composer's unimposing Symphony No. 8, with Frühbeck masterfully using the music's inner workings to create a sense of the piece hurtling forward on a predestined course.

Maybe the concert wouldn't have seemed to dilute the Philadelphia Orchestra's brand had it not followed last week's Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, often described as movie music without the movie. Next week, Augustin Hadelich, a violinist of considerable depth, plays Lalo's fluffy Symphonie espagnole with Frühbeck. Would you ever guess from his visits here that he's a fine Bruckner conductor?

Given what the orchestra has been through financially, one understands the tendency toward safe choices - except that other communities have seen audiences veer toward burnout when this policy is pursued too long. In effect, lighter concerts can become less essential to people's lives. And isn't the Philadelphia Orchestra where we go to escape the vapid superficiality of the commercial music world?

The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.


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