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A Grand Tour

by B.A. Nilsson on August 8, 2012

The Philadelphia Orchestra with Johannes Moser, cello
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4

cellist Johannes Moser

Before the Philadelphia Orchestra took the stage at the amphitheater, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center grounds sported a tented bazaar in which samples of tea and comestibles were offered, and colorful clothing and other accessories beckoned purchase. A talented pair of storytellers at one end struggled to keep an audience against the lure of sword- and scarf-wielding belly dancers at the other.

Provoked to such a level of excitement, it was hard to simmer oneself into complaisant audience mode, particularly as the concert began with the slow, sad cello strains that open Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture. But that goes on to remind us that it’s a fly-ball triple, with the angriest thunderstorm this side of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a pastorale once required by law to accompany dawn in any cartoon, and a march that sports what’s probably classical music’s most famous tune.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda, making his SPAC debut, killed it with Toscanini tempi and precision. The piece probably plays itself, especially when it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra at work, but Noseda’s scimitar-sharp control presaged the even better things to come.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is a satisfying work on many levels. It tells its stories (and these are some pretty famous tales) through music in a manner so transparent you’re hardly aware of the complexity of texture the master orchestrator employed. Eastern though its influences may be, the piece shines with a Russian-ness of character.

Brass-heavy Sinbad’s tale is told by Scheherazade’s solo-violin voice, lovingly played throughout by concertmaster David Kim. Beyond that, it offers showcase moments throughout for individuals in the winds and brass departments.

Any superior orchestra can pull this off. What the best conductors do is intensify the focus, sharpening dynamic contrasts, brazing the attacks, shaping crescendos and (especially) diminuendos so that the music melds into one complicated and intense voice.

That’s what Noseda accomplished with this world-class crew, and the live-performance bonus is the natural sound, razzy and dense, of the instruments, something even the finest recorded reproduction has yet to achieve.

Conducting an orchestra in the accompanying role of a concerto is a different skill, and when the piece is as rambunctious as Dvořák’s Cello Concerto gets, there’s room for plenty of variety and a pathway with not a few traps.

To remind myself how ancient I’ve become, I first saw the piece in concert with a soloist born while the composer was alive. The 33-year-old Johannes Moser seems a comparative stripling, but the virtuosity he brought to the piece was that of a seasoned master.

He indulged a tendency to over-interpret at times, imposing slowdowns on phrases that only end up feeling unnecessarily lumbered by them, but it’s a small complaint. His sound is powerful enough to withstand a vigorous orchestral backing, and that’s what he got. The effect was magnificent, in its own way yet another exotic shading of the evening.