Dutoit in classic form with Philadelphia Orchestra

07.24.11
Philadelphia Orchestra
The Montreal Gazette

By Arthur Kaptainis

Almost 10 years later, and nothing had changed. Except the players: This was the Philadelphia Orchestra appearing under the auspices of the Lanaudière Festival rather than the MSO.

Reason enough to make the trek, although an even greater attraction for the thousands packing the Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre was the first appearance of Charles Dutoit within commuting distance of Montreal since the famous debacle of 2002.

Has any artist changed so little over a decade? At 74, the maestro might sport a few more lines on his forehead, but the bouncing shoulders, sudden dips and dramatic shifts from side to side seemed even more improbably calisthenic. All this in prodigious heat, especially on Friday. There could have been an advisory on the big screens: Don't try this at home.

On Saturday, the movement was better aligned with the music. Dutoit has always understood Berlioz from the inside: The opening minutes of the Symphonie fantastique, with its free melodizing and sudden interruptions, seemed purest romantic poetry.

In the dreamy ball and minimalist pastoral scene Dutoit managed, paradoxically, to project restraint before opening the floodgates in the boisterous March to the Scaffold and Witches' Sabbath. In all the ups and downs, he was abetted by warm strings, punchy brass and individual woodwinds (although I wonder if video close-ups of the English horn soloist can be reconciled with what should be a faraway sound).

Before intermission, we heard Rachmaninoff 's Second Piano Concerto in a thoughtful and chamberlike presentation with Kirill Gerstein, a Russian-born American, at the Yamaha piano. We expect authoritative Rachmaninoff from Philadelphia (one active section violinist, Jerome Wigler, 91, met the composer) but this performance also seemed fresh.

I heard Sibelius's rousing Finlandia from the lawn, where the sound is best compared to that of a giant transistor radio, so I submit criticism of the rough-hewn opening brass growls cautiously. I am more confident of my reservations over the first concert.

While the weightiness of the storied Philadelphia Sound was still detectable in eight movements from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, Rachmaninoff 's Symphonic Dances and Ravel's La Valse, the musical message was generalized, just as the gestures from the podium were exaggerated.

Possibly Dutoit was haunted by the psychological intangibles of the Grand Retour. Half the crowd on Friday welcomed him with a standing ovation.

On Saturday he concluded with an unamplified speech of tribute that simply could not be heard. Then came a wistful encore, Sibelius's Valse triste.

We got the point.