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By Mark Stryker
And the beat goes on.
While Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin continues to recover from the heart attack he suffered earlier this month, the orchestra opened its busy holiday season Friday with the gifted Norwegian conductor Arild Remmereit substituting at Orchestra Hall. This is the second week of DSO concerts that Slatkin has missed, and though he was expected back in December, his doctors have now advised an additional three weeks of rest. That means Slatkin, 65, won't return to the podium in Detroit until January.
Between Slatkin's health issues and the ongoing impact of the recession on DSO finances, these are trying times at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. But the concerns don't seem to be affecting the quality of performances. The musicians are playing with a focused intensity and subtle artistry that their sidelined maestro would be proud of, even as they tackle eclectic programs tailored specifically to Slatkin's strengths.
It certainly helps to have Remmereit back in town for the fourth time since 2007. In his mid 40s, tall, blond and as thin as his baton, he has developed a charismatic rapport with the DSO. He is also no stranger to the challenge of stepping in at the last minute, having made his reputation with a gaggle of 11th hour substitutions for high-profile maestros on both sides of the Atlantic.
Friday's concert opened with Leopold Stokowski's cinemascope transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and from the ominously rumbling opening to the theatrical climaxes, Remmereit drew Technicolor playing from the orchestra -- virtuosic, passionate and filled with subtle gradations of tempo, hue and dynamics. Remmereit's gestures were extroverted, but every twitch had a purpose.
The program then made a U-turn into the sublime with soloist Joseph Kalichstein performing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595, his final essay in the form. The piece has a gentle, chamber music-like intimacy about it, qualities italicized by the warm lyricism of Kalichstein's tone and phrasing and his sensitive partnering with the orchestra. It was not note-perfect playing, but it was supremely musical and alive to fleeting shadows of melancholy — especially in the remarkable development of the opening movement, where Mozart's sudden shift to a remote minor key can break your heart.
After intermission, the music moved into the early 20th Century. Paul Hindemith's "Concert Music for Strings and Brass" (1930) is built from stout blocks of dissonant counterpoint, with dense brass chorales juxtaposed with deft string writing. I like Hindemith but have never warmed to this particular work, finding it pedantic; it sounds too much like a man poking his finger in your chest as he talks. Still, Remmereit led a clear and vibrant performance, the DSO brass section particularly distinguishing itself with calibrated aggression.
Two beloved works by Maurice Ravel replaced the stern Germanic vibe with gossamer melodies, gleaming colors and, in the concluding "La Valse," a silk-stocking opulence. The "Pavane for a Dead Princess" unfolded with the grace of a lullaby, before Remmereit and the DSO cut loose on Ravel's Gallic take on the Viennese waltz. The music swirled and swayed as Remmereit massaged each phrase without micromanaging the life or the personality out of either the score or the players.