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That Championship Season

Academy of Music
09/25/1999 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto #1
Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales – Pavane pour une infante défunte – Boléro

Boris Berezovsky (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

The season of 1999-2000 marks the 100th anniversary of the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra and to commemorate this historic circumstance the music director has boldly programmed an entire year of music written during the last century, much of which has deep associations with Philadelphia and its long and distinguished lineage of fine music makers. The entire season is filled with wonderfully fresh works of the twentieth century including several that had their world premieres here at the Academy of Music. Especially under Leopold Stokowski, the Philadelphia Orchestra was the world’s leading innovative orchestra and helped to propagate the works of such diverse modern icons as Arnold Schoenberg, Edgard Varese, Bela Bartok, Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff, who virtually took up residence in the City of Brotherly Love in the 1930's in order to perform and record his entire ouevre with this great ensemble. The promise of an entire season of modern music (and the corollary lack of Beethoven and Mozart) was a tantalizing one throughout the long summer, but it almost disappeared when the subscribership protested vehemently that the last thing that they wanted was any radical departure from standard programming. Under much pressure the Philadelphia management stuck to their guns and have just launched what should be one of the most interesting seasons of any orchestra in memory. As a result of this bold move I will be traveling south on a regular basis to cover these events as well as reporting on the New York appearances of this dedicated group of musicians.

Last night’s program was a good beginning. The chamber orchestra which performed Stravinsky’s perhaps overly pretty Suite from Pulcinella was tight except for some sloppy wind ensemble playing. The new season also means a new concert master, the young David Kim, who quickly established his credentials in some dextrous solos. This piece was conducted in the 1940's here by Stravinsky himself in what is now remembered as an extremely lively set of performances (one of which was broadcast). I am extremely partial to William de Pasquale (now relegated to second chair) and his gorgeous tone and so will keep a jaundiced ear for a while during Mr. Kim’s initial hegemony. Hopefully there is room for both of these exceptional artists to showcase their talents on a regular basis.

One potential disappointment was adroitly averted when the scheduled soloist for the Shostakovich begged off sick. Andre Watts was supposed to be the headliner of this concert but his replacement Boris Berezovsky was probably a better fit for this quintessentially Eastern European work of sardonic humor. From the first little run in the right hand it was apparent that Mr. Berezovsky understood the "middle finger in the pocket" style of anti-Soviet humor that is the essence of this piece. Here we have a work with major associations to this fine organization so in touch with its own history. The then 16 year old Eugene List, a student of Madame Stokowski, gave the American premiere of this concerto with the orchestra in 1934. It is interesting to peruse the annals of such publications as the magazine of the Bruckner Society of America during those years. Stokowski and Philadelphia are universally praised for their innovative programming and eagerly awaited whenever they came to New York (often to Lewisohn Stadium in those days). The playing of first trumpet David Bilger was insistent and seemed to spur the pianist on to even more dizzying heights of athleticism and irony (there is a similar exhorting quality in the solo horn part in Shostakovich’s amazing Cello Concerto #1).

After intermission there was a fine reading of both the Ravel Waltzes and Pavane, but since I am rehearing them next week as part of a Carnegie Hall program featuring the Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Gil Shaham, I will save any detailed commentary until then. The program ended with a surprisingly affecting performance of Bolero. Maestro Sawallisch carries himself as a conservative Central European but shaped a particularly down and dirty version of this scandalous piece, conducting it much as Ravel himself used to, emphasizing the bumps and grinds of its original dedicatee, the performance artiste Ida Rubinstein. Most modern conductors perform this work as a holy relic, stressing only the dynamic subtleties and the insistent rhythm. I think that they are afraid to let their hair down and present the work as it should be, a jazzy and lewd emblem of the roaring twenties. When Ravel conducted the Lamoreaux Orchestra in this piece the images were all those of the nightclub, not the concert hall. Bravo Sawallisch!

This season in Philadelphia offers us tremendous excitement and promises to be remembered for many years to come. I will be here to cover it all.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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