Morales dazzles with orchestra and Dohnányi

Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi is leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Weber, Brahms, and Beethoven.
Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi is leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Weber, Brahms, and Beethoven. (BERTOLD FABRICIUS)
Posted: April 06, 2014

When you have an excellent clarinetist at your disposal, you send him out on stage with the Mozart concerto and crowds will swoon. But Ricardo Morales is no excellent clarinetist. He is a superlative one. For him on Thursday night, nothing less than the formidable  Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 1 would do, and the capacity audience roared.

Christoph von Dohnányi was on the podium, and, rounding out the Philadelphia Orchestra program in Verizon Hall with Brahms and Beethoven, he won traditionalist hearts. But without knowing the date on the Weber (1811), it would have been easy to miss what a radical avatar of romanticism it was.

Written just two decades after Mozart's concerto, it stretched not only technique but also the ear. Is that slow middle section, embedded in an otherwise jocular third movement, not a textbook bit of Italian bel canto? Morales channeled Joan Sutherland thrillingly when, at the end of the first movement, a series of ever-higher trills gave way to a triumphant high G.

This level of playing exists in a rarefied stratum. Not long ago, Morales threatened to steal out of town, to the New York Philharmonic. Not so fast, Philadelphia said, and persuaded Morales to stay. It was an important save. His presence raises standards in the ensemble.

He has technical mastery, a sweet tone throughout the register (which the Weber certainly exploits), and a good instinct for filling out characterizations. If Woody Woodpecker had been set in the early-19th-century Schwarzwald, a more precise leitmotif could not be found than the main theme of the third movement. Here Morales struck a beautiful blend of light comedy.

Dohnányi, music director laureate of the Cleveland Orchestra, paced the opening of Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn quickly, more like something you'd whistle on a brisk country walk than hear in a concert hall - unlike the way Sawallisch heard it - but it fit. He etched with menacing fine details the slithering, nocturnal eighth variation, and gave a rather patriotic glow to the broad-shouldered finale.

At peace with himself and Beethoven, Dohnányi was judicious and modest with the Symphony No. 7. Nothing flustered him; all was correct. Even the coiled, dotted rhythm persistent in the first movement was relaxed. The approach fell comfortably on the orchestra, even if a player or two struggled a bit with solos. Still, Dohnányi presided over an interpretation convincing because it avoided any personal incursions other than those Beethoven indicated himself.


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets: $10-$190. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

www.inquirer.com/artswatch

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