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That’s Entertainment

by B.A. Nilsson on August 3, 2011 · 1 comment

The Philadelphia Orchestra with Emanuel Ax, Pianist
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 30

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique don’t share a program well. The first is sweet but comparatively shy, almost to the point of introversion. Bombast takes over the second piece, after a journey filled with cynicism, irony and self-destructiveness.

Thus were two contrasting dramas played out during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saturday concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The Mozart concerto is essentially a chamber piece that finds emotional contrast within a contained framework. Berlioz offered a five-act lyric drama culminating in a mad orgy of opium-inspired nightmare, all without a word ever being sung. But that’s a key to understanding both works: they’re vocal pieces for which we’re invited to imagine the texts.

Pianist Emanuel Ax (pictured) was our proxy for the Mozart, filling the solo lines with an approach that proved his sensitivity to the vocal requirements. Ax is a player of marvelous technique, able to inhabit the personality of piece. His Schumann doesn’t sound like his Chopin and neither sounds like his Mozart. Such a protean approach runs counter to the personality-driven tradition of soloist worship, but it reminds us that the music is supposed to come first.

Although the Mozart concerto is the composer’s biggest in terms of length and instrumentation, it’s still essentially a chamber work that succeeds better in salon than amphitheater. Ax’s Mozart style is lean but nuanced, shorn of theatrics, although the middle movement, a stately theme and variations, was given its full measure of heightened emotion as it played thematic hide-and-seek among the soloist and the orchestra’s sections.

Charles Dutoit—quit of his decade of SPAC supervisorship, but since 2008 the orchestra’s officially designated chief conductor—has a keen ear for dynamic balance. Although the orchestra’s forces were somewhat reduced for the Mozart, he still was faced with the challenge of keeping winds and brass in balance with a wall of strings, all the while maintaining the characteristic poise of Mozart’s music.

The Berlioz symphony was something else. The stage was massed with a playing force that included a pair of harps and all manner of percussion, and the piece started with a shimmer of energy that never faltered through its ever-changing moods.

It’s a love story, but it’s the unrequited love of a self-destructive artist whose infatuation—expressed musically in a recurring theme termed by the composer an idée fixe—moves through exuberance into despair, until a merry march to the scaffold gives way to a weird witches’ dance, complete with one of the more stirring settings of the Dies Irae this side of Rachmaninoff.

It’s an orchestral showpiece, long associated not only with this orchestra but also with Dutoit, whose recording of it with the Montreal Symphony won acclaim. His interpretation has broadened a bit since then, but so too has his sense of fun with the work. I grew up listening to a classic waxing by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony, next to which Dutoit’s approach is delightfully unbridled.

As for the virtuoso playing required, the orchestra was more than a match for it. No one is spared. Seventeen slow measures into the piece, the muted strings are suddenly called upon to go full voiced and full throttle into a wild più mosso, where precision is vital. It was beautifully done.

English horn player Elizabeth Masoudnia had a frighteningly lovely solo at the top of the third movement—frightening because she alone owned the stage for close to two minutes, the other main participant an offstage oboe.

And brass and percussion got so raucous in the fourth and fifth movements that a lady in front of me actually covered her ears, which may be the most active moment of participation at a classical-music concert that I’ve witnessed in years.

Dutoit is so versatile that it’s easy to overlook the passion he brings to each over familiar work the SPAC season sticks him with, and the physicality of his passion was enough to provoke one witless commentator to liken his movements to “scrubbing clothes.”

The piece had enough of a powerhouse finish to bring the audience to its feet, evidently unaware that fireworks would follow. And so they did, the first shot exploding with such a bang that the crowd reacted with sincere screams of we’re-being-attacked terror. Now that’s programming!