Classical and Contemporary Works Given Sparkle and Charm in Philadelphia

United StatesUnited States Boieldieu, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Shaheen: Simon Shaheen (oud), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé (conductor), Simon Shaheen, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 19.5.2019. (BJ)

Boieldieu Overture to Le Calife de Bagdad

Mozart – Symphony No. 36 in C major, K.425, ‘Linz’

Saint-Saëns – Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, Op.47, arr. Clearfield

Shaheen – Interlude for solo oud; Concerto in C minor for Oud and Chamber Orchestra

Given the current and recent state of affairs in the Middle East, a concertgoer confronted with a title like The Caliph of Baghdad might well expect to encounter a work of troubling contemporary relevance. Members of the audience at the final subscription program of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia’s 2018-19 season, however, could relax: François-Adrien Boieldieu, composer of the opera so named, has been dead for too long to tackle such a subject. Discounting the Harp Concerto that is practically the only work that represents him with anything like familiarity in present-day concert life, if we know his name at all it is as in his day a much-admired composer of comic operas. Based on a typically romantic story from The Thousand and One Nights, The Caliph, premiered in 1800, was his first big success, and its sparkling overture demonstrates both the sparkle and the charm of his highly professional style.

The most amazing thing about Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony, which the composer had just four days to write, is that it is a masterpiece showing not the slightest sign of haste. Hardly less astonishing is the work’s former lack of popularity. In 1935, the musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, who was then 60 and intimately acquainted with the orchestral repertoire, remarked: ‘I have only once heard it in my life.’ More fortunate than he, music-lovers today have reasonably frequent opportunities to realize that it is a fully worthy companion-piece to the better-known ‘Prague’ Symphony and the famous final set of three. Equally attractive are its melodic warmth and its brilliantly articulated textures.

It was the latter that received the greater emphasis in the zestful performance led by music director Dirk Brossé: it exemplified exactly the lucid and unexaggerated manner Hamlet was demanding when he asked the Player King to speak his text ‘trippingly on the tongue.’ The orchestra rose to the occasion splendidly, with a particularly fine contribution from Martha Hitchins, whose crisply measured timpani rolls greatly enhanced the prevailing sense of lithe forward motion. Another virtue of Maestro Brossé’s direction was his faithful observance of the exposition repeats in both of the outer movements.

Sparkle and brilliance were in ample supply also in the concert’s second half. It began with a rollicking account of the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, in an arrangement by local composer Andrea Clearfield that does full justice to the unrestrained exuberance already animating Saint-Saëns’s original score.

The rest of the afternoon’s program centered on the oud, an Arabic instrument similar to its western descendant the lute (etymologically, ‘el oud’). Simon Shaheen is a preeminent current exponent of the instrument as both composer and performer, and his immaculate technique, combined with a refreshingly friendly and unpretentious platform manner, clearly pleased the audience in two works of his own composition. A ruminative solo piece was followed by the Philadelphia premiere of his Concerto for Oud and Chamber Orchestra. After two movements whose largely unison string writing was perhaps a little too much the same in character, the finale brought a welcome touch of fantasy from both the masterfully played solo instrument, and the orchestra’s winds and percussion.

Bernard Jacobson

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