A Symphony Triumphs Over Hard Times

03.18.09
Philadelphia Orchestra
Musical America

If the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra are feeling demoralized, they certainly did not sound so on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. The conductor Charles Dutoit concluded the program with Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, and the orchestra sounded fabulous.

You might have expected the players to be reeling as the orchestra grapples with a leadership crisis, searching for a music director, a chief executive and a board chairman. In addition the institution has decided to confront the acoustical shortcomings of Verizon Hall, its home at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened with such promise in 2001. It will undergo an expensive and disruptive renovation. All this as economic woes afflict arts institutions everywhere.

But rough times sometimes get people to focus on what matters. And, under Mr. Dutoit the Philadelphia musicians played this Dvorak staple as if nothing mattered more. This was not the most incisive or tautly structured performance. But Mr. Dutoit's restrained tempos allowed him to draw out the Wagnerian resonances of the music. The strings played with a richness that has long been a Philadelphia trademark. Yet there was uncanny clarity, despite the warmth and body of the string sound.

The subdued chords that introduce the Largo movement evoked the sound world of "Parsifal." Yet in the fleeting episode in which the music turns rustic with warbling winds, suddenly we were in the pastoral realm of "Siegfried." Mr. Dutoit and his players brought bracing freshness to the finale in a performance of sweep and brilliance.

The concert was part of Carnegie Hall's Honor! festival, a celebration of African-American cultural legacy organized by Jessye Norman, who was on hand to introduce the evening. The program opened with Darius Milhaud's compact ballet score "La Création du Monde" from 1923, a work overtly influenced by black culture.

The creation story told here comes not from Genesis but from African folklore. And this Neo-Classical music, though French to its core, is suffused with the jazz that thrilled Milhaud during outings to Harlem nightclubs on a visit to New York. The section of the score in which the bluesy serenity of the gods is disrupted by cosmic chaos is especially delightful: the chaos is depicted through music of raucous, syncopated, jazzy boisterousness.

Befitting the occasion, two black vocal soloists were featured in performances of orchestral song cycles. The rising tenor Russell Thomas brought his essentially lyric yet sizable voice to an urgent performance of George Walker's "Lilacs," a 16-minute setting of phrases from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed," a piece that in 1996 made Mr. Walker the first black American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In comparison with the Milhaud, there is little about Mr. Walker's music that could be considered overtly African-American. This is a skillfully orchestrated, restless and brooding contemporary score, composed in an essentially atonal yet harmonically grounded idiom. The composer, agile at 86, bounded up the steps to the stage during the warm ovation.

The bass-baritone Eric Owens was the earthy-voiced soloist in Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," performed in honor of the pioneering American contralto Marian Anderson, who sang the piece at Carnegie Hall in 1946 with the New York Philharmonic.