Potent playing, tired conducting as Philadelphia Orchestra opens Florida tour

February 06, 2013
By Lawrence Budmen

André Watts performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) with the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

The Philadelphia Orchestra began a four-city Florida tour on Tuesday night in West Palm Beach. A full house, including many former Philadelphians, packed the Kravis Center for a program of Liszt, Beethoven and Brahms.

Acclaimed as one of America’s top orchestras, the ensemble achieved legendary status under the music directorships of Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti. The past decade, however, has been tumultuous. Ailing music director Wolfgang Sawallisch missed many concerts and foreign tours, causing his eventual retirement from the podium. His successor Christoph Eschenbach was less than enthusiastically received by many of the musicians, wreaking havoc with performance standards. Persistent economic problems eventually led to a bankruptcy filing and reorganization. The rising young Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin has taken the reins of the orchestra as its newest music director last fall.

The good news is that the ensemble appears to have weathered the storms artistically. Much of the group’s vaunted tonal sheen and polish was on display Tuesday night. The dark, voluminous string tone that has long been a Philadelphia trademark is still strongly potent and the woodwinds play with an almost Gallic lightness.

The veteran Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 79, is leading the tour. Looking frail and slightly bent while walking to the podium, he conducted the concert seated.

Liszt’s Les Preludes has been a Philadelphia showpiece for decades. It provided a fine showcase of sectional precision, the beauty of the lower strings and lovely solo winds enveloping the score. Still Liszt’s tone poem is an orchestral barn-burner and this performance was a rather tame affair, Frühbeck’s turgid pacing and lack of thrust in the climaxes robbing the music of excitement.

André Watts was a stellar soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Five decades after his televised debut at age 16 on Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” Watts’ technique remains remarkably secure. From the opening fanfare of octaves to the triplet-infused finale, Watts was digitally agile, assaying the score with accuracy and assurance.

While he can produce torrents of power and volume, Watts’ most impressive playing came in the concerto’s quiet moments. His measured, almost Mozartean reading of the Adagio was exquisitely shaped. Taking the finale at a daringly fast clip, Watts infused the solo line with dance-like vivacity. Clearly a favorite of Kravis audiences, he received a lengthy ovation. Frühbeck offered supple, well coordinated orchestral support, the crucial horn parts played  with splendid precision and beauty of tone.

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

From the heavy tread of the opening bars of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, Frühbeck’s traversal was often ponderous, wanting in fire and urgency. Despite much luminous string playing and a gorgeous solo by concertmaster David Kim, the Andante lacked a sense of pulse and line. Only the bucolic third movement seemed to take wing with a requisite sense of lightness, and the rotund sonority of the trombones in the chorale melody of the finale commanded attention. Still, the kind of monumental heft that Frühbeck attempted in this music requires the talents of a Furtwangler or Klemperer and the Spanish conductor is not in that league.

The dance from the zarzuela La boda de Luis Alonso by Jeronimo Gimenez was a colorful  encore, Frühbeck belatedly bringing sparkle and verve to this Spanish soufflé.

Hopefully, the next time the Philadelphians appear in South Florida, it will be with Nezet-Seguin on the podium to offer his own musical spin on the fabled Philadelphia sound.

The Philadelphia Orchestra plays the Bach-Stokowski Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Grieg’s Piano Concerto with soloist Andre Watts 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. 561-832-7469; kravis.org. The orchestra plays the Bach-Stokowski, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Watts 8 p.m. Thursday at the Arsht Center in Miami. 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org.

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