A Stunning United States Premiere by Rami Khalifé

09/12/2016

Rossini, Gounod, Fusco, Khalifé: Rami Khalifé (piano) Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.12.2016. (BJ)

Rossini – Overture to L’italiana in Algeri

Gounod – Symphony No.1 in D major

Fusco – Alternate Routes (Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia commission – world premiere)

Khalifé – Stories for piano and orchestra (United States premiere)

There are new works that I can hail with enthusiasm on the basis of just one hearing. There are others that leave me initially in at least two and sometimes several more minds.

Rami Khalifé’s Stories is a classic case of the latter effect. An assertive opening gesture that started like Rachmaninoff’s favorite Dies irae theme but quickly turned into something different was followed by a primitivistic passage of some length, dominated by a heavy drum beat, and so heavily scored that Khalifé’s playing was often more visible than audible. But a variety of contrasting ideas followed, some of them much more lucid in texture and gentler in manner.

At one point a repeated horn call in dialogue with the piano and other instruments evoked the perfumed romanticism of that popular favorite of 100 years ago, In a Monastery Garden by Albert Ketèlbey (who was, believe it or not, Clifford Curzon’s uncle by marriage). Along with the rapidity and aggressiveness largely evident through the work’s more than half-hour duration, slower music played an increasingly important role, with some very attractive writing for the piano’s middle register. There were also a few episodes plucked inside the instrument with sonorities modified by the insertion of what looked like a stiff sheet of paper between some of the strings.

The composer demonstrated keyboard skills of a high order in the quieter passages, but it was his stunning virtuosity and accuracy at the breakneck pace, building momentum towards the end, that most tellingly captured the attention of a clearly engrossed audience. The piece could be accused of excessive length (and I could have done without the return of that dominating drum beat). But considering Stories as a whole, I am compelled to conclude that sheer size is an integral part of its appeal. And so the mind I end up in is one that applauds the French-Lebanese Khalifé both as pianist and as composer, and I should be glad to encounter other works of his.

It was a shade unlucky for Raphael Fusco that his chamber concerto should receive its world premiere on the same program as Khalifé’s work, which made such an impact as to drive everything that preceded it out of mind. Composed originally as a saxophone concerto, Alternate Routes has subsequently been subjected to several different arrangements, including this skillfully scored chamber-orchestra version commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. (I think, by the way, that the title is a linguistic error: surely Fusco means not “alternate” but “alternative”?) Surprisingly in view of the composer’s stated intention to “seamlessly weave together Jazz sonorities with Classical techniques,” the piece came across as more or less traditionally neo-classical—it made no drastic contrast in style from the comfortable world of the agreeable but scarcely-inspired Gounod symphony that had just been heard.

In all of these works, and in the opening Rossini overture (with Martha Hitchins plying the Turkish crescent, or “Jingling Johnny,” to charming visual and tinkling effect), Dirk Brossé drew polished and dedicated playing from the orchestra, and the presence of several new members among its ranks in no way undermined the tautness of ensemble that the group customarily achieves these days.

Bernard Jacobson

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