Chamber Orchestra winds up its season with a bang

Saeka Matsuyama soloed in the "Violin Concerto" Monday at the Perelman Theater.   
Saeka Matsuyama soloed in the "Violin Concerto" Monday at the Perelman Theater.   
Posted: May 15, 2014

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia almost never ventures so deeply into the core territory of the Orchestra Next Door as it did in its final concert of the season, an all-Tchaikovsky program under music director Dirk Brossé. And on Monday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, you could sense the suspicion in the air. But by the end, the concert was clearly the hit of its season.

The Serenade for Strings makes a certain amount of sense for chamber orchestras, but the Philadelphia Orchestra's illustrious string tone should have made the piece something for the second half of the program rather than the curtain-raiser status it was accorded here. But none of that even comes to mind when a performance of this marvelous piece is cooking, and heard in the close proximity afforded by the Perelman. I didn't love Brossé's slightly slack first-movement tempo, but everything that followed was strong-minded, with extra lilt in balletic sections and particular gravity when Tchaikovsky starts confessing his soul.

The success of the second half of the program rested to a great extent on guest violinist Saeka Matsuyama, since the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto really requires a personal stamp if it is to feel like anything more than a run-through. Though she has made the rounds in many important competitions, she doesn't play with the dress-for-success conservatism one might expect.

The tone is imposing, a tad grainy, almost like an Eastern European player or a latter-day Isaac Stern, though Matsuyama had no problem scaling back to something more intimate at certain moments, such as her imaginative treatment of the first movement's second subject, which felt like the memory of a dance. Though her cadenzas didn't have the controlled fireworks of an ideal performance, the third movement's hair-trigger interplay with the orchestra was taken at a daringly fast tempo, to edge-of-the-seat effect.

What set Monday's performance above Matsuyama's Brahms Violin Concerto recording from the 2005 Queen Elisabeth Competition was her emotional presence. Serious outpourings were saved for moments when nothing else would do. And what came out was the dire, life-and-death quality of the best Tchaikovsky performances.

Postscript: I'm starting to love Brossé's post-intermission surprise bonbons. This one was a pair of Gymnopédies by Erik Satie, which he orchestrated himself with heavier emphasis on the winds than the usually heard Debussy orchestrations. Also amusing: He introduced Satie as having had a great influence on John Cage. (But what about Blood, Sweat and Tears?)


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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