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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven and Lindberg:
cond. Christoph Eschenbach, soloists Marina Mescheriakova, Jill Grove, Vinson Cole, and Alan Held, Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Singers Chorale, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 17.05.2006 (BJ)

Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s home in the Kimmel Center, has a splendid new organ. At least, I imagine it must be splendid: on my recent return visit to the city, I had no opportunity to hear the instrument in a starring role, but only as an integral part of the texture in the Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s Sculpture, written for the Los Angeles and now receiving its Philadelphia premiere. In the course of the piece, the organ growled marvelously, in a way that electronic organs seem never quite to be able to emulate, so the omens are good. (The instrument, by the way, rejoices–if that is the right word–in the ponderous title, “The Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ,” presumably celebrating an organ donor of an unusual but welcome kind.)

As to the music, I found it less than convincing. Most Lindberg works that I have heard before have been written in what may be called the lingua franca of modernism. This time, the composer was clearly aiming at a somewhat more popular, not to say populist, style. There is nothing wrong with that. Aaron Copland, after all, wrote probably his best pieces in his most accessible vein. But the trouble with Sculpture is that what was evidently intended to overwhelm the listening ear ended instead by underwhelming. If it were not that I know from previous experience, and confirmed once again in the second half of this concert, that Verizon has superb acoustics, I might well have concluded that the hall was at fault. In any event, the writing, for a large orchestra including a brass complement of 16 players, four of whom play Wagner tubas, sounded simply ineffective. And since there was nothing in the way of memorable musical invention, beyond a sadly banal and too often repeated fanfare figure, the 23-minute work resolved itself, to my ears, as merely one long anticlimax.

But then, after intermission, we had Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and here music director Christoph Eschenbach and his forces were in superb form. It was possible to feel, as one or two of my friends did, that the first movement was a shade lacking in impact, but my own impression was that the conductor was sensibly saving up for an imposing–and this time truly overwhelming–finale. Along the way, the slow movement was done with ravishing tone and compelling eloquence. Very often, conductors muff the subtle tempo relation between that movement’s two themes, one Adagio molto e cantabile, the other Andante moderato; so I am particularly gratified that the two performances I have heard most recently, one in Seattle conducted by Gerard Schwarz last December and this one, both got it absolutely right. The only complaint I had with the Seattle reading was of a somewhat slow and stodgy scherzo, but Eschenbach paced the third movement with fine vitality.

In the finale, though only one of the four soloists–Vinson Cole, who also sang the tenor part in Seattle–really impressed, electrifying contributions from both the orchestra (highlighted by some typically graceful oboe solos from Richard Woodhams) and the chorus made this a performance to relish. I cannot recall that I have ever heard a chorus in this work sing with such evident ease (despite writing that at times borders on the impossible), such precision of nuance (moments of rapt wonder alternating perfectly with rousing rhetoric), and such exemplary clarity of diction. The choir’s music director, David Hayes, is to be heartily congratulated on his preparation. But it needs a magisterial presence on the podium to turn potential into reality, and that Maestro Eschenbach triumphantly provided. Altogether, this was a Beethoven Ninth to be treasured in the memory.

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)