Philadelphia Orchestra and Longwood – perfect together

Asher Fisch
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

You take your chances when you mix music and nature - what with threats of heat, rain, and the local entomology. But a pastoral grace held sway over the Philadelphia Orchestra's return to Longwood Gardens Saturday evening, bolstering the notion that this recent (re)marriage of venue and ensemble might be the best thing to happen to both in some time.

Thousands voted favorably.

For its 2008 appearance, the orchestra sat down, rather formally, between the conservatory and fountains. This time, the less manicured sloping meadow was backdrop for more than 3,300 listeners in an intermission-less hour and 20 minutes of Johann Strauss' "Emperor" Waltzes, the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

As the sun set behind Strauss and murmuring meadows, you couldn't help swooning over possibilities for the future.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has woodsy Tanglewood, England's Glyndebourne Festival Opera reveres its polite picnic grounds, a ha-ha for sheep and 700-year-old manor. Classical music meets summer in many other lovely venues. Longwood, gorgeously endowed with 1,077 acres 30 miles west of Philadelphia, beats them all.

With the Philadelphians in the mood to cultivate listeners - and donors - closer to home, and Longwood set to complete a strategic plan next month that will mull facility needs for its growing performing-arts program, a real partnership should be within grasp.

The details of the experiment - A new building? How big? Where? - are formidable. But these one-time-only concerts will help inform the discussion.

The audience Saturday evening could choose between temporary seating and blankets on the lawn. We chose a blanket fairly far from stage, and the sound system, though surprisingly present, couldn't fully convey all dimensions of the performance. How, for instance, in such a setting could you really assess the quality of sound that conductor Asher Fisch was drawing from the ensemble?

And yet clues suggested that the leader managed a strong interpretive imprint. Concertmaster David Kim was the assured soloist in the Bruch, but it was Fisch who, in the first movement, moved apace with real fire.

I was quite taken with his Strauss waltzes - the old-world portamenti (slides from one note to another), renewable bursts of energy, a touching slowing at the end. The Israeli conductor, whose recent guest encounters include a Berlin Philharmonic debut, grouped together certain musical cells in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, making his own case for compelling phrasings. Not all of a great repertoire works in the great outdoors, but if there was a moment when the two communed, it was in the second movement, where Fisch emphasized the con moto qualifier in the andante con moto indication, granting the orchestra - and audience - the happy freedom to pivot between exaltation and ease.