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Curtis Symphony, Philadelphia

Ignat Solzhenitsyn, conductor

Kensho Watanabe, conductor

Benjamin Schmid, violin

Roberto Diaz, viola

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia

April 13, 2014

 

The musicians of the Curtis Symphony Orchestracapped off their current performance season in Verizon Hall April 13, with a concert dedicated to Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, whose visionary philanthropy not only extends to the physical resources at the Curtis Institute, but also invests, vitally, in the conservatoire’s student financial needs. The Lenfests were ringside for the concert that featured celebrated Curtis alums Ignat Solzhenitsyn on the conductor podium, with guest soloists Roberto Diaz and Benjamin Schmid performing the US premiere of Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki’s 2012 composition Concerto Doppio for violin, viola and orchestra.

But first, Kensho Watanabe, associate conductor fellow at Curtis, led the orchestra in Igor Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) an early, rarely played showpiece. It is airy, academic Igor, featuring straightforward and robust tones and colors, not leaving much interpretive room other than to play as glitteringly as the Curtis orchestra does.

In contrast, Solzhenitsyn, Diaz and Schmid almost looked gravely academic when they came onstage to present Penderecki‘s Concerto. Diaz played the first scratchy notes, then Schmid enters plucking the strings of his violin, then Penderecki’s evocative voicings just pours forth; Diaz with more disquieted lines, in overlays and handoff to Schmid’s more yearning, lyrical ones. The parallel tones and cross blends beautifully dark and evocative templates. The orchestral passages appear and vanish with cinematic drama, sometimes taking over with oceanic resolve. Meanwhile, other effects- crystalline chimes ripple in or a rumbling basso brass, a twilight zone celesta, and they all play as organic ideas. Throughout, Diaz and Schmid are essaying the core narrative with relentless technical artistry.

Solzhenitsyn asked the 2014 graduating musician to stand and they received deserved congratulations for their achievements at Curtis. A reminder a conservatoire’s musical standard, involving a constantly changing roster of musicians, does not happen by accident. They then essayed a vigorous interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, the PathÈtique. Often played for its cloying sentimentality, the myths circulated about it being prescient to the composer’s mysterious death, he conducted the premiere just nine days before his death at age 53.

As Paul Horsley cites in program notes, after completing the work, Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew, Vladimir Davydov, “You can’t imagine what bliss I feel.“ He may have been a man in turmoil, but not just wallowing in despair, penning the Pathetique. Aside from all the ominous speculation about the mysteries surrounding its creation, Tchaikovsky’s central melody scoring tearjerker movies and even 50s pop tunes.

Solzhenitsyn and CSO overcome all of Pathetique’s entrenched baggage by keeping the tempos sharp and not, as often happens, leaning on the work’s iconic romanticism. At the same time, CSO delivers its sonic power of the crescendos with lustrous depth and equalization. Also flying high, penetrating flute lines and woodwinds that highlight the more balletic moments in the score. The musicians fired off the Allegro molto so vibrantly at the end of the third movement, many in the audience burst into applause. The orchestra performed with such control and detail that by the time that lush refrain comes in, it is a contextualized passage, rather than an unchanged melody.

Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.