Dutoit’s Shostakovich in Carnegie and Verizon

by Sedgwick Clark

Lang Lang got the flowers, but a blistering Shostakovich Tenth Symphony dominated the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first Carnegie Hall concert this season under Charles Dutoit (10/25). It’s his fourth and final season as the orchestra’s interim “chief conductor,” between the unfortunate five-year tenure of Christoph Eschenbach and Philly’s music director-designate, the 35-year-old French Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Having conducted the ensemble regularly for three decades now, Dutoit knows how to get the best from these players, as European critics affirmed repeatedly during the ensemble’s summer tour of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Britain. Some expressed surprise that an orchestra with its financial duress could play so superbly. Perhaps they had taken seriously Gramophone magazine’s ludicrous dismissal of the Philadelphians in its December 2008 rating of “the world’s best orchestras.”

Dutoit has always been at his best in Shostakovich, moving the music along judiciously and avoiding post-Testimony point making. The desolate end of the Tenth’s opening movement can seem interminable, for example, but here the composer’s gravitas registered without dragging. The Swiss conductor was equally adept in the first half’s lovely Fauré Pavane, Op. 50, and the crisp, reduced-forces accompaniment to Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, with Lang Lang a capable soloist. From the viewpoint of one who hears the Philadelphians each year in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Dutoit deserves all possible laurels from the orchestra.

Hearing these musicians under Dutoit on their home turf, as I did 13 months ago, is no less impressive. In a dynamite performance of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the absolute unanimity and tonal resonance of fortissimo Philadelphia pizzicatos was an awesome experience, and the depth and power of the lower strings when they entered in the Shostakovich’s third-movement Allegro was staggering.

What is most important to report, however, is that the acoustics of Verizon Hall now seem worthy of the Fabulous Philadelphians. Yes, this is the same hall that received mixed reviews on its official opening night, ten years ago, on December 16, 2001. Some thought it lacked resonance; others wrote that the sound was coarse. Even acoustician Russell Johnson said in a press conference the day before, “The hall is not ready to open.” The late acoustician’s design philosophy allows a hall’s sound to be “tuned” for varieties of repertoire, and he was at a performance of the Mahler Fifth under Simon Rattle that I attended in Verizon a year later. When I opined that the strings sounded richer, Johnson agreed hesitantly but said there were still improvements to be made.

Shostakovich’s pile-driving opening bars in the Fourth last October made instantly evident that improvements had been made. The winds, brass, and percussion had retained the remarkable clarity and presence I had noted at the hall’s opening night, and the strings were now in proper focus and balance. Moreover, the resonance was quite sufficient to display the famed “Philadelphia Sound,” which the orchestra’s prior home, the deadly dry Academy of Music, could never do.

Verizon Hall deserves a rehearing from all those critics who were negative on opening night.

Looking Forward

My week’s scheduled concerts:

11/10 Kaplan Penthouse. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Harbison: Six American Painters for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello. Schnittke: Piano Quartet. Kurtág: Hommage á Robert Schumann for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, Op. 15d. Penderecki: String Trio. Harbison: Songs America Loves to Sing for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, and Piano (2004).

11/15 Avery Fisher Hall. New York Philharmonic/Bernard Haitink; Carter Brey, cello; Cynthia Phelps, viola. R. Strauss: Don Quixote. Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”).  (Also 11/10, 11, 12.)

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