The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia opened its latest concert with Dirk Brossé conducting a 19th-century piece that is a textbook example of cinematic music, even though it was written before the first movies flickered across a screen. The program ended with the U.S. premiere of a piece that looked, on paper, like it was going to be another example of musical storytelling, in a more serious mood. Unfortunately, the contemporary offering didn’t live up to its advance billing.
Rossini’s overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers is a cinematic work because it evokes all the emotions of a light adventure story. You don’t have to know the details of the story; cinematic music strips it down to its emotional effects. You know Rossini’s music conveys a narrative that is exciting and basically good-natured, like The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that’s all you have to know.
Rossini understood the purpose of the light adventure story and stayed within its emotional range. Brossé conducted with good tempos, a light touch, and the general approach of someone who’s just as understanding as the composer.
As its title implies, Rami Khalifé’s Stories for Piano and Orchestra is supposed to produce that same storytelling quality. The stories it tells are more serious than Rossini’s, but it’s too hyped up.
A monotonous slog
Khalifé amplified the piano even though the concerto was being presented in the Perelman Theater, a medium-sized hall in which pianos routinely fill the space without any electronic help. Volume replaced true drama, in the same way contemporary movie theaters pump up the sound system in the hope the audience will feel something important is happening.
Some of the quieter moments were effective but a good editor would have told the author he should cut most of these stories by 20 or 30 percent. The unaccompanied piano solos were too long by an even bigger factor and too repetitious. A pianist can create an intensely emotional effect the first two or three times he slams a hammer strike into the keys. After that, the strikes become monotonous.
The other two items on the program were examples of pure music, with no attempt at a story line. Gounod’s First Symphony combines the classical forms of the Mozart-Haydn period with the color and emotional expressiveness favored in the middle years of the 19th century. As Dirk Brossé said in his opening remarks, the form is classical but the language is romantic.
A too-brief journey
Raphael Fusco’s Alternate Routes started life as a saxophone concerto. It was so successful Fusco has developed several other arrangements. Dirk Brossé asked him to arrange it for the Chamber Orchestra and that version received its premiere at this concert.
Fusco has spread the saxophone solo among all the sections of the orchestra, turning the piece into a “concerto for orchestra,” an orchestral work in which the different sections take turns playing solos. Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra is a staple of the orchestral repertoire and most composers who have come along since then have contributed to the form.
A saxophone solo offers a composer a fruitful basis for a melodious piece that’s supposed to show off every section of the orchestra. Fusco’s score develops the possibilities with all the color and variety a good orchestra can add to a good idea. The violin solo played by the Chamber Orchestra’s new concert master, Stephen Tavani, created one of the afternoon’s high points.
In addition to his purely musical virtues, Fusco has obviously absorbed one of the great lessons speakers and writers hear throughout their careers: always leave your audience wanting more. The concerto’s three movements all ended a little too soon. As everything should.