Orchestra does an engaging take on familiar Tchaikovsky

Principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni took the soloist's chair for a program in the orchestra's Tchaikovsky celebration.
Principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni took the soloist's chair for a program in the orchestra's Tchaikovsky celebration.
Posted: January 19, 2014

The Philadelphia Orchestra is holding a Tchaikovsky celebration - but how can you tell? The Russian composer figures heavily into every orchestra season, downtown and at the Mann.

Still, it is always a good time to dust off forgotten items from the far corners of his catalogue, and the orchestra, in its three-week Tchaikovsky festival, responded by performing, well, none of them.

This was presumably conceived as a chance to sell some tickets in a repertoire the ensemble plays very well. Ormandy, Muti, and Sawallisch brought something special (and each a different something special) to the ballet scores, recordings of which only gather luster with time. But gaping stretches of unfilled seats in Verizon Hall Thursday night showed an offering mix that failed to move the masses. It's understandable. If Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings or Rococo Variations tumble unbidden from the radio at intervals best measured in days or even hours, why pay good money to hear them again?

One reason for the turnout might have been lack of star power. Instead, the orchestra drew on its own roster, putting principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni in the soloist seat and associate conductor Cristian Macelaru on the podium. Ni provided no surprises. As a member of the corps with an occasional solo line, she has been capable. Here, faced with Tchaikovsky's marvelous invention with singing phrases and emotional exploitations, she had a solid, bright sound. Drama was present, but it was understated and often unimaginative. She was most convincing in the kinds of whispers that might have unnerved other players.

The work was part of a larger program that was very much the kind of middlebrow menu you would once have found at the Mann Center or, in a previous era, as part of a Time-Life compilation. Macelaru opened with a crisp reading of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor, and ended with Balakirev's Islamey.

While Tchaikovsky - like Borodin and Balakirev - was devoted to folk themes, he stood alone, more international and highly trained. His music hops the borders in a way their music doesn't, so it's hard to know what kind of connections were implied by programming Borodin and Balakirev (in this second of three Tchaikovsky weeks) alongside the Rococo Variations and Serenade for Strings. Still, Macelaru's account of the Serenade had depth. The third-movement elegy had particularly satisfying contours. While keeping the overall shape of the movement in view, Macelaru told several distinct tales along the way, all engaging and all persuasive.


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$99. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

www.inquirer.com/artswatch

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