Seven Bright Planets Outshone by a Single Star

United StatesUnited StatesRespighi, Mendelssohn, and Holst: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.3.2015 (BJ)

Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances for the Lute, Suite No. 2
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 64
Holst: The Planets


Led by one of the most eminent of this season’s guest conductors, the afternoon’s program began with a zestful performance of the second of Respighi’s suites of arranged lute pieces, and ended with a generally enjoyable account of Holst’s The Planets. To my mind, however, the indubitable star of the show was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto.

 There is what might almost be vulgarly called a glut of fine violinists now before the public. But among them all I don’t think there is another one that can contest with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg the title of the work’s greatest living interpreter. A very special and legitimate kind of excitement is to be had from seeing and hearing a violinist, tackling this most familiar of romantic concertos, standing on stage and at various points perceptibly conveying the thought, “Right—what shall we do next?”

 Not for Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg the reverential attitude of genuflexion before a supposedly sacrosanct delivered text. That is not what the great composers wanted or expected from their interpreters. There are, it hardly needs saying, certain boundaries in a classic score that a player transgresses at her peril. But when Sibelius said to Adrian Boult, “If ever your musical instinct clashes with my written instructions in the score, please follow your instinct,” he was articulating a position shared with almost every master in the past two or three centuries of Western composition.

 Mendelssohn’s delectable concerto, so often dispatched with the ruthless aplomb of routine, simply becomes a different work when Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg plays it—and having heard her do so repeatedly, I am also in a position to say that it becomes a different work every time she plays it. This latest account was, if I may use the expression, a supremely ballsy one—yet, when she came to the last movement, she achieved miracles of thistledown delicacy beyond anything I have heard before even from her. Her technique, in other words, is in superlative condition.

 The task of the conductor and orchestra in this context is not so much poetic as architectural. They must erect a kind of virtual house, from room to room of which the soloist may stroll, taking in the contents of each and assembling her choice of them into her own personal narrative and decor. This was very well done under Noseda’s tigerish leadership, and the orchestral sound, highlighted by some particularly fine work by the horns and the woodwind sections, was a worthy support to the soloist’s playing.

 I am less sure of my position in assessing Noseda, whom I was hearing in concert for the first time, on the basis at least of his Planets performance. The Respighi, a charming piece by a too often underrated composer, presents less of a challenge to the conductor, and it was delectably played.

 There can be no gainsaying the major-ness of Noseda’s career, and he is evidently a dedicated and often impressive exponent of the music he conducts. Most of The Planets—the third substantial English work, after the Enigma Variations and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, programmed by the Philadelphia Orchestra this season—was done with impressive élan. But there are certain aspects of the conductor’s technique that I felt worked against the full effect of the music.

 He achieves miracles of whirling and twirling with the baton, but I should not be surprised if I were to be told that the sheer size and physical complexity of his beat can be distracting to the players. It was notable that, in a superbly concentrated performance of the first movement, “Mars,” driven on the basis of Don Liuzzi’s and Angela Zator Nelson’s precise and pointed timpanism, the conductor used, to advantage, a much simpler and more economical beat. Elsewhere, Noseda’s extravagant repertoire of gesture sometimes looked inappropriate. I usually try, in professional listening, not to be influenced by the way a performer looks. But at the entry of the big tune in “Jupiter,” it was impossible not to notice that his demeanor, leaning down emphatically on the podium and with hands similarly low, looked more like that of a funeral director than of someone portraying the subtitle’s “Bringer of Jollity.”

 Still and all, it was good to hear the splendid old warhorse in a performance notable for crisp ensemble and some lovely solo playing, by concertmaster David Kim and by an array of woodwind, brass, and percussion players too numerous to be named individually.

Bernard Jacobson

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