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Hot shots: the Capuçon brothers.

Truly Spectacular

By B.A. Nilsson

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4

For 26 years I have assiduously avoided the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. When I was a teenager, Tchaikovsky’s music was like a candy I consumed at such a rate that it induced musical diabetes. I couldn’t get enough of the “Pathéthique.” I OD’d on the “Tonight We Love” concerto. I reached a point where I stopped listening to his music altogether, hoping this insulin-like insularity would allow the gloomy Russian’s music back into my diet.

Two pieces escaped my boycott: the Violin Concerto and the Rococo Variations. And both pieces were on last Friday’s program, with the dynamic Capuçon brothers—Renaud Capuçon, violinist, and Gautier Capuçon, cellist—making their debuts as soloists with the orchestra.

Opening with the Marche Slav is a good idea in terms of programming. It’s Tchaikovsky at his most bombastic, throbbing with patriotism and melancholy. And it foreshadowed the concert’s closer, the mighty 1812. But as the horns and tympani kicked into gear, as the strings wailed and the flute sounded a shrill obbligato above, I couldn’t help but hear again every maddening moment that had turned me off at about the same time that the composing career of John Williams was inspired.

But something happened onstage beyond such superficialities. Conductor Charles Dutoit led the orchestra through an effortless-sounding crescendo, a moment of great musical sensitivity, the kind of moment that concertgoing is all about. The kind of moment you can’t hear when the car audio’s Automatic Level Control kicks in.

By the time the Violin Concerto commenced, I was back in the candy store, feeling gluttonous. Sometimes the excitement of a soloist’s debut is found only in retrospect, after others have showered kudos. But this kid tore up the fiddle with such aplomb that we all knew right then we were witnessing something special.

Renaud Capuçon brought unique touches to this too-familiar piece. He played the opening way up on the lower strings, giving a guttier sound to the melody. He eschewed the cuts and fancifications other violinists have added over the years, proving that the piece as published remains effective.

This is a piece that sends the soloist soaring up and down the fingerboard in rapid scales and arpeggios. There’s no room for error, and Renaud showed none. If anything, he came out of the cadenza with too much energy, rushing a bit as he rejoined the orchestra, but finding the right balance once again—a tribute both to his playing and Dutoit’s always impressive hand as an accompanying partner.

The slow movement calls for the soloist to mute the violin, which requires an even more sensitive pairing with orchestra, which often and easily threatens to overwhelm the fiddle. No such problem here. And the full-voiced finale is all pyrotechnics and filigree, played with such dash that it practically sucked the audience out of its seats.

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra hasn’t nearly the flash of the Violin Concerto, but it soars with its own charm and sneaks in plenty of virtuoso demands. Gautier Capuçon energetically—almost recklessly—nailed his entrances early with a voice that said “I’m in command.” But he always was a sympathetic partner with the orchestra, trading glances with concertmaster David Kim as soloist and strings shaped their back-and-forth phrases. It was another excellent debut.

The closer, of course, was the 1812 Overture, a piece that reveals its mysteries the first couple of times you hear it and then behaves like an annoying dog, whining and nudging and otherwise demanding your attention. Which it finally does, in the most over-the-top act of musical desperation, with cannon and bells, both of which were not-terribly-effective pre-records at this performance.

But the orchestra was never short of excellent, playing with the conviction of newcomers to the piece, finding joy in this too-familiar score, and, when you come right down to it, pleasing the hell even out of a grump like me.

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