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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Smetana, Grieg, and Dvořák: Barbara Bonney, Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, 12 March 2005 (BJ)


Quot homines, tot sententiae, or, to render the point vulgarly, “You pays your money and you takes your choice.” I cannot pretend to understand the battle that continues to be waged between Philadelphia’s music director and the critics of the city’s newspaper of record, the Inquirer. To my mind, representing his predecessor Wolfgang Sawallisch’s achievements, in music like Smetana’s Bartered Bride dances and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, as peaks of which Eschenbach falls woefully short is just about as incomprehensible as a program note that could, on this occasion, detect a resemblance between the scherzo of the latter work and that of Beethoven’s Ninth.



Certainly there are members of the Philadelphia public who look back on the straitlaced Sawallisch era with nostalgic admiration (just as there are others, like me, who found it a sad let-down after Riccardo Muti’s glory days here). Certainly, too, there are players in the orchestra who take a negative view of Eschenbach’s much more intense and flexible interpretative approach-show me an orchestra anywhere without members antipathetic to their principal conductor. Put it down simply to differences of taste–and de gustibus, in the words of that other Latin tag, non est disputandum. I am content, along with the very adequate number of players who do admire their new chief, as well as with most of my musically discriminating friends in the audience, to enjoy a concert like this one as a salubrious, invigorating, and withal searching exploration of nicely varied repertoire, distinguished by orchestral playing that gave the lie to the accusations of technical maladroitness frequently leveled by our local experts.



Smetana’s Polka, Furiant, and Dance of the Comedians made a sparkling start to an evening that concluded with a Dvořák Seventh dense with drama and grandeur, and, in that scherzo particularly, delicately nuanced in both rhythm and texture. Between these Slavonic bookends, the center of the program offered an effective Nordic contrast with five Grieg songs–From Monte Pincio, Solveig’s Song, Solveig’s Lullaby, A Swan, and that old favorite Spring–sung with vibrant tone and unfailing emotional understanding by Barbara Bonney. This American soprano is surely one of those most deserving of wider celebrity, in an age when certain others, such as that darling of the New York public Renée Fleming, enjoy reputations beyond their merit. Predominantly slow in tempo and lyrical in mood, the songs were just what was needed to balance the exuberance and powerful rhythmic impulse of the neighboring works, and the Philadelphia strings in particular drew every ounce of expressive nourishment from their modest but finely judged orchestral writing.



Bernard Jacobson

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)