The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia Celebrates Fifty Years on Stage

United StatesUnited States Brossé, Beethoven, and Barber: Ignat Solzhenitsyn (piano), Soovin Kim (violin), Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello), Alan Morrison (organ), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Dirk Brossé (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.5.2015 (BJ)

Brossé: The Philadelphia Overture
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
Barber: Toccata Festiva
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

Marc Mostovoy founded the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia—known until its 2000 name-change as the Concerto Soloists—in 1964, and this concert served as a suitably festive celebration of its 50th anniversary season. Mostovoy himself, his successor as music director Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and Dirk Brossé, the third and present holder of that position, were all on hand to be honored, as was one violinist who has been a member of the orchestra since day one, Igor Szwec.

Since I recently completed a 15-year stint as program annotator for the ensemble and have performed with it a couple of times as narrator, I feel close to the COP, but not too close to render fair judgment of its work, and this concert could be accounted an almost unmixed success.

That “almost” needs to be explained. For purely personal reasons, the originally scheduled new organ concerto by the music director had to be replaced on the program by Philadelphia icon Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra, while the afternoon opened with The Philadelphia Overture, Brossé’s gift to the Chamber Orchestra when he took up his post here five years ago. And the Toccata is very far from being representative of Barber’s strongest creative vein, being very much a one-damn-thing-after-another construction. The strings in particular have some peachy passages to play (and played them beautifully), but uncharacteristically modern-sounding brass figures keep invading the texture, and the only real pleasure the work afforded was the opportunity the complex pedal part afforded the excellent organ soloist, Alan Morrison, to show a particularly nifty pair of socks off to the audience.

As it finally materialized, the program’s trio of composers could have been regarded as a sort of revisionist version of the legendary “three B’s.” Even in their most vainglorious moments, I doubt whether either Barber or Maestro Brossé would have laid claim to artistic parity with Bach or Brahms. Still, Brossé’s overture made a most attractive start to the musical proceedings (after a bunch of speeches, understandably enough): it’s well scored, tuneful, varied in expression, and altogether more enjoyable than many such pieces created initially for a specific occasion.

Conductor and orchestra played the piece up a treat, and they were no less successful in the two Beethoven works. I have a particularly soft spot for the often denigrated Triple Concerto, and with sedulous orchestral support its solo parts emerged as if freshly minted under the hands of three exceptionally gifted exponents. Some years ago, Soovin Kim, with Jeremy Denk, gave one of the most stunning performances of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata I have ever heard, and his playing on this occasion showed that neither his technique nor his musicianship has lost anything since then. The German cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, still in her twenties, played the cello part—which often takes the thematic lead in this work—with an ideal combination of authority, elegance, and tonal warmth, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn drew magically delicate sonorities from the piano, integrating his part perfectly with those of both his solo partners and the orchestra.

How better to end a festive occasion with a bang than by playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Much as I dislike the word—and even the concept—“definitive,” I find it hard, having heard the performances Riccardo Muti gave of it with the Philadelphia Orchestra some twenty years ago, not to measure all subsequent accounts against their lofty standard. But Brossé, I am happy to report, got pretty well everything right about the piece.

The difference mandated in the score between the two fermatas (pauses) that recur with every repetition of the first movement’s main theme was consistently realized. The second movement’s Andante benefitted from a flowing tempo in keeping with the composer’s qualifying “con moto.” And the distinction in tempo between swift scherzo and slightly slower finale—a difference often missed or even reversed in lesser conductor’s readings—was properly observed.

I did feel that this latter point could have been dramatized even more persuasively if the finale’s first few measures, with their summoning into the symphonic repertoire of instruments including trombones and contrabassoon, had been more assertively sustained. Inevitably, in a hall this size, just three double basses, though played with admirable vigor, couldn’t really make the volcanic impact their part needs in the third movement’s trio section—it would have sounded fine in the COP’s usual Perelman Theater venue. But all in all this was a perceptively and compellingly conducted performance, and it was splendidly played, both in big tuttis, and in such contributions as Geoffrey Deemer’s unusually grandly phrased oboe solo at the start of the first movement’s recapitulation.

On, then, to the next fifty years.


Bernard Jacobson

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