Can nice guys create art?
The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra have both hired new conductors who amuse audiences with their comments and surround themselves with an aura of likability.
There's nothing wrong with a likable public personality. But it does raise questions, because the music played by these two orchestras isn't always likable.
Much of it is tragic and somber. When it does communicate pleasurable emotions, it usually reaches for something deeper than simple good cheer. Beethoven may have ended his symphonic output with an "Ode to Joy," but the emotion he celebrated was a hard-won victory, wrested from a lifetime of loss and emotional turmoil.
The Chamber Orchestra's last conductor, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, always maintained a noticeable tension in his relations with the audience, and you could feel that tension in the Chamber Orchestra's programming. Solzhenitsyn scheduled works, like the Brahms German Requiem, that pushed the boundaries of a chamber orchestra's customary repertoire. He programmed premieres and unfamiliar works that challenged the audience's tastes and expectations.
Solzhenitsyn is, in addition, a musician rooted in the German and Russian tradition that music is supposed to be a spiritual experience.
Dirk Brossé's programming tends to be less venturesome. The concerts he'll conduct this season feature familiar names. The newest piece on the Chamber Orchestra schedule, Stanislaw Lutoslawski's 1955 Funeral Music, will be conducted by Solzhenitsyn, as a guest conductor, in a program that sandwiches the Lutoslawski between pieces by Mozart and Haydn.
Still, after taking in Brossé's first two programs this season, I'm hopeful. Brossé reminds me of the kind of writer a friend of mine calls "deepies." They joke, they smile, they disseminate a general air of amiability, but at some point you realize they're dead serious about their work.
The first item on Brossé's latest program was so obvious that it almost amounted to a cliché. Every musical organization must schedule a Samuel Barber work this year, in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of Barber's birth, and Brossé gave us the knee-jerk choice: Barber's Adagio for Strings.
But there was nothing knee-jerk about Brossé's execution. He didn't approach the Adagio as a series of pleasing sounds scheduled for ceremonial purposes. He produced one of the most emotionally intense readings of the piece I've heard. Brossé's vision of Barber's best-loved work seethes with inner conflict.
Brossé's programs may look sedate on paper but he compensates for that shortcoming by pulling the maximum effect from every piece. Vaughan Williams's oboe concerto sounded like the serenade to English country life it's supposed to be. Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme finished the afternoon with a high-voltage performance of a showy crowd pleaser. Puccini's Crisantemi, composed on the death of a popular Italian aristocrat, caught the right combination of sober mourning and subdued majesty.
Brossé's two soloists gave him their best. In the Vaughan Williams, oboist Geoffrey Deemer's lovely singing solos in the final movement were particularly noteworthy.
The Tchaikovsky is a series of showcases for the cello soloist, and Hai-Ye Ni turned in a performance that should have convinced any rational observer that she deserves her regular post as the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The core of the Variations is a set of marvelously varied instrumental arias that sounded so heartfelt under her bow that it was easy to forget they stemmed from the hands, not the voice.
Adding a "'surprise'
In his remarks during the program, Brossé said he had looked at the Chamber Orchestra's past programming and scheduled the kind of music the audience seems to like. He's tempering this policy, he says, by adding a "surprise" to each program— an unlisted piece of his own designed to provide something different.
At this season's first concert, the "surprise" was a lively and colorful tribute to Philadelphia that showed Brossé has paid some attention to the city and understands why some of us are willing to admit that we actually like the place. This time around, he opened the second half with orchestral variations on a Chinese violin melody he had heard in 2005. The piece made a good companion to the Vaughan Williams, and it included solo turns for most of the Chamber Orchestra's first chairs.
Skillful interviewer, too
The Chamber Orchestra follows its Sunday afternoon concerts with a "classical conversation" featuring the conductor and the soloists. Conductors needn't be good talk show hosts, but Brossé handled the assignment like a pro. He interviewed Deemer and Hai-Ye Ni for a few minutes before he called for questions from the audience, and he always asked intelligent questions that elicited interesting answers. Brossé knows how to throw in just enough humor to keep everyone relaxed and entertained without wasting an opportunity to communicate solid information.
A Chamber Orchestra that plays familiar works about as well as it can be played may not be quite as satisfying, to me, as a Chamber Orchestra that schedules more adventurous material. But Brossé's approach obviously appeals to his audience, and that may be the best practical option in a time when arts organizations are struggling with shrinking funding. It's certainly better than no Chamber Orchestra at all.