Britten with film accompaniment

03.27.14
Donald Runnicles
ConcertoNet

Philadelphia
Verizon Hall
03/27/2014 - & March 29*, 2014
Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a, from Peter Grimes – Violin Concerto, Op. 15
Arvo Pärt: Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, “Linz”

Janine Jansen (violin)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor)
Tal Rosner (video artist)

By Lewis Whittington

Orchestras around the world have been playing Benjamin Britten’s to mark the centenary of his birth and to reflect on the scope and influence of his music. Conductor Donald Runnicles returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra podium with a Britten program, with a thoughtful and, it seemed, personal appreciation of the composer’s brilliance.

The concert opened with the image of video artist Tal Rosner on screens floating above the orchestra to explain what he wanted to achieve in his film images that were to accompany Britten‘s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which was opening the program. The Philadelphia Orchestra has been using such accompaniment several times a season, with mixed results, but Rosner’s approach attempts to visually represent the work’s musicality in as thoughtful a way as possible, and he did secure permission from the Britten estate, with its arty montage of bridges, architecture and waterways. Whether this accompaniment of an already image evocative piece of music is a distraction or not, goes to personal taste. Rosner works with living composers, it states in the program notes, to create “a new language of classical/contemporary music videos.” Runnicles launched into the ethereal ‘Dawn’ interlude with those tubular bells punctuating a swirling orchestral, building toward epic sound wall, with dark violin- woodwind counterpoints, shadowing the surface luster. For me, the music completely took over, looming images an unobtrusive backdrop.

Janine Jansen then appeared and immediately looks in the zone during the opening orchestral of Britten’s Violin Concerto. It is a marvel of musical contrasts from ethereal lyrical tones to very disquieted and unresolved voicings. Jansen is reflexive with the orchestra, and the technical skill was held throughout this tumultuous piece. During Britten’s denser passages, Jansen dropping her body for bow angles, at other moments, she is hunched over like a possessed fiddler. During a section when the orchestra recedes for a solo section it reduces to a few chromatic notes, then geared up again to a violin frenzy before the orchestra comes in. Note bending, bridge strumming, staccato riffs and other string effects appear ride in, yet, with steeled technique, Jansen never wavers from Britten’s litheness and exploratory depth. The soloist received a lusty and deserved standing ovation.

Runnicles introduced Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten with a request for there to be no applause, since it was a memoriam. Pärt composed the piece in 1980, four years after Britten’s death. Runnicles noted that Pärt starts the work in A-minor, which is the key of the Dawn section of the Interludes and from those steeled, epochal bells, the Cantus just swells, as a sonic, tender monument. It is exemplar of how influential Pärt has been himself to the current generation of composers.

Runnicles also reminds that Britten was a devotee to Mozart and he chose Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 “Linz” as the closer. The orchestra floated the Adagio, with detail and robust flair. The middle movements struck as rote, but everything was plugged back in for the cathartic denouement. Crisp chamber work in the maestro’s circle, especially with David Kim’s tone on the lead phrases and richly echoed by associate concertmaster-violinist Marc Rovetti.