Saturday, January 06, 2007

5 Things about the Philadelphia Orchestra

I heard the east coast premiere of John Harbison's Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra Friday night. It was a really wonderful concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

1. The program started with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde Prelude. It was my first time to see Marin Alsop in person, I've enjoyed her recordings and videos. She really is the embodiment of Leonard Bernstein - yet more. The Wagner was very musical, exciting and different, which I appreciate from standard repertoire. The orchestra was responsive and passionate.

2. It's hard to say exactly what I like best about Harbison's new bass concerto. No not for that reason, but because there are some many amazing things about it: it's exciting - it's brilliantly set up for the soloist, not only well balanced virtuoso and lyric playing - but the bass is never covered up in heavy orchestrations. There are also lovely solos in the parts for the concertmaster, two members of the bass section and of course, normal woodwind solos. My favorite instrument makes an appearance in the last movement - the flexitone!
As for the performance, Harold Robinson nailed the work. And he was almost always in the stratosphere, leaning across the bass. He also went from a lyric classical style to hip jazz licks with ease wherever Harbsion called for it in the piece. Marin Alsop was less balletic with the work, seeming to lose the keyboard player in the last movement, but otherwise had a exciting work that the audience adored.

3. Aaron Copland's Third Symphony is very special to me. I can actually remember the very first time I heard it - on the radio at age 16. I immediately got a record of it (yes, an LP - of Mata and the DSO) and ended up collecting many others too. I was supposed to hear it the summer of 2000 in Dallas live and didn't make it, so this was the first chance I could hear it in person. I wasn't disappointed.
I had guessed there would be some missed notes - and mainly from the brass - since there are so many demands made by Copland. That wasn't the case though. Actually the funniest part of the evening came from an early entrance of the contrabassoon, insert your own junior high school joke here. There are also incredibly high parts written for the string section, and the sections "all rose" to the occassion! The bass section shown in their initial entrance and also in the third movement.
All in all, the Philadelphia Orchestra went to stellar heights with this concert. Any talk about their problems, should take a close listen, and as in many things in life, don't base things on one hearing. Performances vary, but the magic that the orchestra delivers is usually legendary.

4. Marin Alsop was a delight to watch. She led with grace and an amazing sense of line. And she was all about the music. Baltimore is lucky to get her as a Music Director.

5. Several things struck me about the audience. First, they adored their own principal bass, and were very warm (and Hal deserved it!); secondly, it was interesting to see the reception that Marin enjoyed from them - there was lots of talk about her, and there were four curtain calls after the Copland. I thought they should have encored Grainger's Sussex Mummer's Carol since the Mummers Parade was Saturday morning.

You can catch this concert again this evening and Tuesday night. Also coming up is Thomas Quasthoff singing Mahler with the orchestra later this month!

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