Review: Naples Philharmonic, with double-threat guests, closes season dramatically

05.12.12
Mei-Ann Chen
Naples News

By Harriet Howard Heithaus

The concert at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts Friday night turned into an exercise class for the audience. Over and over it was jump up, clap hands, shout, sit down, jump up, shout, clap hands, whistle.

But exercise is good for us.

It was especially invigorating Friday night. The Naples Philharmonic Orchestra end-of-season classical concert paired it with virtuoso Augustin Hadelich on the Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major and conductor Mei-Ann Chen at the forefront for the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in F minor. There's a second performance at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 12.

The powerhouse evening was limited only in the “first date” uncertainties of the Brahms opening movement. Chen and Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, which has no trouble pouring out volumes of sound, threatened to overpower Hadelich’s 1723 Stradivari.

That, however, was a complaint about the concerto when it was written — that the orchestra had as much of Brahms’ attention as the violin. He even opens the work with four themes for the orchestra, choosing which horse to ride, while the soloist must twiddles thumbs for 90 measures before coming in.

Fortunately, orchestra and soloist had reached more rapport by the time both played the yearning three-note theme that the movement may be best known by.

Brahms’ first movement is a marathon at nearly 23 minutes, with a cadenza — a solo portion optionally composed by the soloist — - toward its conclusion. At least 16 have been composed for this concerto, although the original written by Joseph Joachim for the premiere is best known. (Want to hear others? See this site: bit.ly/J7uQLy)

While Hadelich apparently played Joachim’s, it seemed to have been embellished to, if anything, to bring more complexity to its already tough technical demands. His playing was a crackling three minutes of multiple stopping, nimble runs and glissandos, a candy box of sweet high notes and rich tone.

Impressive — but only a sample of what would come with his encore: Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 variations. There are no words to describe this kind of meteoric playing, full of speed and technical tricks and a pizzicato version of the theme, plucked confidently and quickly. You can’t help but to jump up and shout when Hadelich parachutes back down. On Friday, the audience did.

But there were still other treats in the Brahms: Judy Christy’s warm oboe solo opening the second movement, and the triumphant Hadelich/orchestra strut through the famous final movement.

Maestra Chen showed her own power by drawing it from the orchestra. She conducted a performance of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. Four that was Technicolor — or iPad 2 Retina color, if you prefer — to the many black-and-white versions out there.

Many a classical music lover — all right, at least one — keeps a version of the Fourth Symphony’s stormy first movement as a comfort blanket for the blues. But this one was so dramatic it evoked tears.

Chen paid close attention to motifs from woodwind and horn voices in the first and carbonated flute flights in the second movement. She stood on the tempo to slow it down sharply at the right moments and kept the volume at fingertip control, down to whispers from the timpani and up to ear-pinning pronouncements from the horns.

My favorite concert companion pointed out that Chen channels Leonard Bernstein in her style, cupping her palms to bring the sound up and spreading them to push it down, and using a staccato chop for precision closes. YouTube offers views of each of them conducting the Tchaikovsky Fifth, so the viewer can assess:

In the end, however, one’s spiritual ancestry is less important than the result of strong collaboration. None of the excellence Friday would have been possible without an orchestra of the caliber of the Naples Philharmonic. The season couldn’t have concluded with a better incentive to get season tickets for next year.