A Gil Shaham encore and sparkling Prokofiev in Philadelphia

United StatesUnited States Jolas, Beethoven, Prokofiev: Gil Shaham (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 30.11.2019. (BJ)

Gil Shaham (c) Christian Steiner

JolasA Little Summer Suite

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major Op.61

Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B flat major Op.100

This was a Philadelphia Orchestra evening whose conclusion, in Susanna Mälkki’s thoughtful and often sparkling account of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, made up for an unimpressive start.

There are certainly some attractive pieces to be found in Betsy Jolas’s output, but the Little Summer Suite that the nonagenarian composer wrote four years ago is not one of her best creations. Playing for a little over ten minutes, it is a fairly routine example of old-fashioned Modern Music, with an occasional sudden percussion-laden outburst.

The next work on the program featured a highly gifted soloist in Gil Shaham. He played beautifully, and followed the concerto with an encore in which he graciously shared the spotlight with concertmaster David Kim, the gavotte from Jean-Marie Eclair’s Sonata for two violins Op.3 No.5, played with bewitchingly hushed poetry. But unfortunately, in the concerto as in Jolas’s suite, the orchestra sounded distinctly, or rather indistinctly, below its familiar best. ‘To make the Philadelphia sound like a not very good orchestra constitutes a somewhat remarkable achievement’ was my comment on Mälkki’s performance of the Brahms Fourth Symphony in her Philadelphia debut five years ago, and it was sad at this return engagement to hear my wife at intermission express exactly the same feeling.

But then came the Prokofiev, which seemed to happen in a quite different world. Sensibly paced, and full of searching feeling in the slower sections of the score, it was enlivened by some brilliant woodwind riffs in the scherzo  (Allegro marcato) – actually my favorite part of the work — and in the comparably entertaining Allegro giocoso finale. If Susanna Mälkki could produce results like this in older repertoire classics, she would surely be a force to reckon with, for even in her least convincing moments there are touches that suggest a keen intelligence is in play.

Bernard Jacobson

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