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And she’s a Philadelphian, too: Chang.

Steak and Sass

By B.A. Nilsson

Philadelphia Orchestra

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 18

If Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 belonged to Sarah Chang during this concert, then Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 was Peter Oundjian’s. One of four conductors brought in after music director Charles Dutoit’s Aug. 12 farewell, Oundjian was first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet for many years, and is currently music director of the Toronto Symphony, with which (among many other notable achievements) he led the premiere of his cousin Eric Idle’s oratorio Not the Messiah.

He clearly understood the architecture of Brahms’ symphony. It’s sprawling, slow-moving and about as cheerful as Brahms ever gets. So detailed is the first-movement construction that it seems to imprison you in the development section. What makes it make sense is a clarity of instrumentation and dynamics.

There’s a D-major theme near the beginning introduced by the violins that goes into a descending-note section even as the horn counters that by going up, just as the flute comes in to echo the violin theme. More echoes occur, bringing in more winds and strings, and it’s this kind of passagework that needs transparency. And that’s what Oundjian provided.

If the third movement seemed somewhat slow, there was compensation in the well-realized pulse. And this performance was a reminder that the more lively fourth movement anticipates Mahler’s first symphony, still a decade away, with the sweep of its melodies and skillful use of the brass.

Before the Brahms was Shostakovich, which is like serving a big spicy appetizer before a dinner of steak and potatoes. Shostakovich’s music is his biography, and this work had a lengthy gestation because the composer was officially condemned as a “formalist” shortly after he finished the piece in 1948, and waited seven years, revising it all the while, before allowing David Oistrakh to give its premiere.

Not surprisingly, it throbs with ambiguity. Pain gives way to sardonic laughter; a seemingly gentle passacaglia quotes warlike themes by Beethoven and Shostakovich himself. The four movement work alternates slow and fast movements, and those fast movements are technically brutal. The concerto calls for a virtuoso soloist, and Sarah Chang, herself a Philadelphian, enjoyed yet another triumph with this orchestra.

When she recorded the piece four years ago, she called it her favorite, and this affection is obvious in her gutsy approach. Where it’s lyrical, she found lyricism, but never overplayed it; when she had to dig in and get dirty, she showed no reserve.

Her sound in the big cadenza that connects the last two movements was superb, and her work with Oundjian and the orchestra was nuanced and effective.

The concert opened with a sprightly reading of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture, calming a restive crowd, but concert going is getting more like airplane travel. The capper at this one was a dimwit down the row from me who spent the Brahms symphony feeding herself from a crinkly snack bag, then checking to see if anyone realized she was the source of the noise. She looked enough like comedian Andrea Martin to make me think it was a put-on; afraid not.

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