Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philadelphians at Play

It's been a back-to-Philly few days for me. As much as I love New York and all that comes with it, there are some things from my childhood outside Philadelphia that remain closer to my heart, among them the old hometown baseball team and orchestra. I jumped back onto the bandwagon this month as the Phillies made it into the postseason, watching with anxiety and ultimately excitement last night as they advanced to the NLCS in a nail-biter of a game from chilly Denver.

Tonight, while the team preps for their next series in Los Angeles, I enjoyed in person another group that does well on the road, the Philadelphia Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall. Just as listening to the Phils' games on my bedside clock radio before drifting off to sleep is a fond memory from growing up, so is experiencing the latter-day incarnation of that famous Philadelphia Sound live at the Academy of Music.

Currently without an official music director, the orchestra is under the familiar baton of Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit, who has a longtime association with the ensemble, often guest conducting at the Mann Center summer concerts in Fairmount Park during the '90s. Tonight's concert, unified by the theme of stirring works from composers in their 20s, opened with one of my favorite pieces in the classical canon: Barber's Adagio for Strings. The piece is so familiar from recordings that I was a little worried it might not pack the same sensory punch of early hearings. I was pleasantly surprised. It snuck up on me. By the time the orchestra approached the pinnacle of the work, a warm shiver was washing over me, close kin to goosebumps. It's just the kind of visceral experience I hope to get at the orchestra, proving that no amount of radio can truly replace being there in the same room with a band as accomplished as the Philadelphians.

The guest soloist of the evening was Yuja Wang, a Chinese pianist still in her early 20s. She played a work that was new to me: Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. If the Barber is a piece that's easy to adore, the Prokofiev is one that commands respect. I can't say I'm going to rush to download a recording of this piece, but Wang's performance certainly deserved the standing ovation she got. It's truly a vehicle for technical brilliance and artistic stamina: sharp chords and staccato textures alternate with perpetual motion passages that are jaw-dropping in the demands they place upon the performer. She and her slender hands were up to the job. At times, the music sounds like it's about to veer off into some heavy-metal number or free-jazz chart. The occasional rhythmic head bob from the pianist wasn't at all out of place.

The concert closed with the almost-hour-long Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, appropriately noted as being a staple of music history textbooks in Carnegie's program notes. Appropriate since that's exactly what I associate the piece with: my summer-camp course in music history, learning about Romanticism ("This is the best day of my life, I'm so depressed"), listening to the cassette tape recording as I completed whatever assignment went along with it. Even better was hearing works lying on the ground in the darkened classroom. Nothing untoward ever happened, but it felt just exotic enough for this sheltered kid. My mind usually wanders somewhere in the third movement, after the waltz of the ball and before the programmatic elements start to take on their macabre twists: the march to the scaffold, the execution, the witches' sabbath, the demented quoting of the Dies Irae and the final appearance of the idee fixe. We began the concert with a rapturous meditation on mourning and ended it with a rousing parody of the same. All in a night's journey through the mind of some twenty-something artists.