A Stokowski-style Wallow at Verizon Hall by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on February 4, 2012

Philadelphia Orchestra Guest Conductor Nicola Luisotti got a jump on the Stokowski Year celebrations by programming Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for solo violin. This lush arrangement for full orchestra  shows off the string section that the former music director developed into music legend. Even today, years after Stokowski last led the Orchestra at the Academy of Music, it still has a reputation for the cushiony sound of its strings, a secret like Grandma’s apple pie that has allegedly been passed down by generations of Philadelphians. Ormandy was a dedicated conservator of this tradition. Muti attempted to make them more sleek and intense.

The Music Director of the San Francisco Opera got right into the piece conducting with his hands alone, in the style Stokowski made famous. The result was rich, gooey and colorful, a guilty pleasure. If it was not quite a ‘Stoky wallow’, it was close enough. Sometimes it was even Bach.  Stokowski arrangements are enjoying something of a revival internationally and it is not surprising guest conductors want to trot them out here, where they were born. We will hear more next season.

The program highlight was a slashing, accurate, dead-on performance of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who has made it one of her signature pieces. She was in fine form and the orchestra followed her conscientiously, relishing the vibrant showier moments of which there are several. Luisotti conducted with a baton, but it is the violinist’s show all the way.

The second half piece was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, one of the most enduring pieces in the repertory. This was a Stokowski specialty, showcasing a virtuoso orchestra and allowing the conductor to indulge in timbre and sensuality. It fit Stokowski’s personality like glove and he recorded it many times. Luisotti was without baton again, savoring every moment, conducting some of the time like von Karajan with his eyes closed. If there was a feature of his interpretation that stood out, it was his attention to the ‘vocal line’ of the piece. The orchestra and concertmaster-soloist David Kim ‘speak’ and ‘sing’ in Scheherazade. Luisotti brought passion and clarity to the line and got the orchestra to sing out. Rimsky-Korsakov supplies color galore throughout. In the third movement, Luisotti’s interpretation became almost opera without voices. The many solo contributions from the orchestra were pure and clear. It never dipped into vulgarity. The ultra-familiar piece worked its certain magic yet again.

I was struck again by the contrast of the current Philadelphia Orchestra, under a guest conductor making his debut, with the dispirited ensemble far too often encountered five years ago under a number of people. A full audience buzzed excitedly as it left. Something dramatic has happened in Philadelphia.


Curtis Rittenhouse

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