Three Days, Three Thought-Provoking Concerts

United StatesUnited States    Mozart, Wernick, and Debussy: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society–Juilliard String Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 6.11.2015 (BJ)

Mozart: String Quartet in C major, K. 465
Wernick: String Quartet No. 9 (world premiere, PCMS commission)
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10

Schumann and Mozart: Jonathan Biss (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Robin Ticciati (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.11.2015 (BJ)

Schumann: Manfred Overture, Op. 115
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595
Schumann: Symphony No.  in D minor, Op. 120

Beethoven and anon./Brossé: Hanchien Lee (piano), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Dirk Brossé (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.11.2015 (BJ)

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, Emperor”;
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36

Even with the city’s estimable and often enterprising Opera Philadelphia lying fallow, as it were, between productions, a long weekend of performances by three of that company’s fellow resident companies at the Kimmel Center supplied an illuminating conspectus of what makes Philadelphia such an exciting place for a music-lover to live these days.

First, on Friday, came the Juilliard String Quartet, demonstrating yet again in its 75th year of activity that changes of personnel can be a strengthening just as easily as a weakening factor in an ensemble’s character and quality. First violinist Joseph Lin and violist Roger Tapping have been members for only four and two years respectively, yet they already seem utterly at one with the group’s long-cherished aim to “play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new.”

Mozart’s so-nicknamed “Dissonance” Quartet began the evening sounding astonishingly modern in style and inspiration, its intricate polyphony realized with equal conviction and unfailing artistry by all four players—besides the two already named, second violinist Ronald Copes and cellist Joel Krosnick (the latter in the last of his glorious 42 seasons with the group). They made the substantial and deeply serious stature of the music more evident than ever, and the only thing that could have made my pleasure even greater would have been the observation of a few more repeats.

Then came the world premiere of the String Quartet No. 9 commissioned by PCMS in celebration of its 30th-anniversary season from Richard Wernick. Now 81, this formidable Philadelphia-area composer has been steadily building up one of the most impressive contributions to the string-quartet literature by any composer of our time, and I am inclined to think that with No. 9 he has created one of his very finest works. I do not presume to hazard an opinion as to whether it will take its place in the repertoire as an “established masterpiece,” but, in accordance with the Juilliard’s stated aim, it certainly sounded like one in this astonishingly concentrated and technically adept performance.

The piece is laid out, like several of Wernick’s works, in two movements, the first labeled “Assertive, Aggressive,” the second headed by Dante’s phrase “per una selva oscura.” It is perhaps not excessively difficult for a composer to craft a concluding slow movement that provides healing balm after a stormy fast one. But what Wernick has succeeded in doing here is to achieve a truly soothing tone of voice, without removing the strife that was evident in the driven first movement from the listener’s continuing awareness.

A little under 20 minutes in duration, the quartet scales heights and profundities of expression more commonly encountered only in much longer compositions. It was appropriate that tension should be lowered by the programming after intermission of Debussy’s altogether less intellectually challenging String Quartet, in a performance that rose at the climax of the slow movement to a level of eloquence I have rarely encountered in the piece.

On the following evening, the Philadelphia Orchestra offered a program of Schumann and Mozart conducted by Robin Ticciati. Even in the absence of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has been up the road lately conducting a thrilling Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, the orchestra maintained its current superfine polish and musicality of performance under the leadership of the English guest conductor, who is only 32 years old, but was already making his fourth appearance with the orchestra.

All the signs suggest that Ticciati, already the holder of such important posts as the music directorship of Glyndebourne Festival Opera and principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is destined to be the Next Big Thing; that certainly seems to be the opinion of Sir Simon Rattle—along with the late Sir Colin Davis, one of Ticciati’s mentors—who has described him as “one of the greats.” My only previous acquaintance with his conducting, through a superb recently released recording of three Haydn symphonies, made me particularly eager to heard him in the flesh, and his graceful and dynamic direction of both Schumann and Mozart on this occasion amply lived up to my highest expectations.

Schumann’s fascinating overture and his Fourth Symphony (played in the composer’s 1851 revised version) were by turns richly romantic and thrillingly crisp, and Ticciati’s choice of a string complement with only four double basses justified itself, without any loss of tonal body, by its clarification of the composer’s too often muddily rendered orchestral writing. Concertmaster David Kim, associate principal cellist John Koen, and associate principal oboist Peter Smith played their slow movement (or section) solos beautifully, and there were fine contributions also from David Cramer on flute, Mark Gigliotti on bassoon, and the brass section at large.

In this concert and the one by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia the following afternoon, there was a rare opportunity to hear Mozart’s and Beethoven’s last piano concertos within the space of two days. In Mozart’s K. 595, Ticciati established his credentials as a compelling Mozartean, fully realizing the orchestral part with a depth and seriousness it does not always convey in performance. The soloist, however, the widely admired Jonathan Biss, seemed to me not nearly as convincing. I have heard some lovely playing from Biss, especially in a song recital with Mark Padmore last season, but I am troubled by his tendency toward unstable rushing in bravura passages. When Mozart moves to shorter note-values, the music is already faster in gait, and you don’t need to redouble the effect by going faster still.

By contrast, the young and much-less-well-known soloist the following afternoon with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Taiwan-born and US-trained Hanchien Lee, projected a calm maturity and naturalness that made her performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto thoroughly enjoyable. All of us, probably, have heard grander performances of this somewhat grandiloquent work, but the ones I like best are that, like this one, leave a more vivid impression of the quieter passages in the score than of its obvious big moments. Lee makes a lovely sound, and she is certainly a pianist to watch out for as her career develops.

She was well supported by the orchestra (with some especially graceful solos from principal oboist Geoffrey Deemer) under the leadership of Dirk Brossé, who has been music director since taking over in 2010 from Ignat Solzhenitsyn. The latter, aside from his gifts as a conductor, is also a pianist of genius. Brossé’s paraconductorial activity, by contrast, is as a talented composer—he added to this program his charming reinterpretation of an anonymous 16th-century Belgian dance. He was thus perhaps less keenly focused than his predecessor on the modalities of performance. But any consequent want of smoothness in his work with the Chamber Orchestra is no longer evident. He and his musicians have coalesced in a very satisfying fashion, and they now play as well for him as I have ever heard.

It would nevertheless be misleading to suggest that the orchestral performance at this concert was as unreservedly enjoyable as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s playing under Ticciati. It was technically secure and often genuinely thrilling at the brisk tempos the conductor set. But the trick (if I may use so vulgar a word) to conducting symphonic music is to effect a comprehensive blend of unity with variety, and Brossé’s view of the Beethoven Second Symphony on this occasion seemed to me too exclusively concerned with the former quality at the expense of the latter.

Anton Schindler, secretary at times of Beethoven and the composer’s often reviled Boswell, left a fascinating account of Beethoven’s frequent changes of tempo in a rehearsal of this symphony’s slow movement. It would arguably be a mistake for a conductor lacking the actual composer’s authority to aim for anything quite so extreme in a modern performance—but I certainly could have welcomed some such element of flexibility in relief of the rather one-dimensional nature of the Larghetto as Brossé conducted it.

Still and all, this was confident and often highly effective Beethoven playing, and represented, both in the symphony and in the finely shaped performance of the Coriolan overture that opened the concert, an entirely logical and consistent approach to the scores in question.

In such regards, the musical rewards to be reaped at the Kimmel Center occupy a very high level of excellence. I wish it could be said that the Center fulfills its own responsibilities as well. But the failure to bring in any touring orchestras to provide the home teams with occasional competition is regrettable; the excellent bar on the premises (admittedly not run by the Center’s administration) closes at 10 p.m., which is exactly the time most performances end and there might surely be a number of concert-goers ready for a drink; the possibility of pre-concert dining in the hall has been allowed to lapse; and the use of the wonderfully imaginative spaces envisioned by architect Rafael Viñoly—especially the indoor garden on the roof of the smaller of the two concert halls—seems sadly unenterprising.

But I don’t want to end on so negative a note. There is great music, and there is great music-making, to be heard at the Kimmel Center on many days of the year, and the excellence of Verizon Hall’s Russell Johnson-designed acoustics, too often dispraised in the Center’s early days, seem to have been generally recognized by this 15th season.

Bernard Jacobson

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