They love him in Washington

Philadelphia Orchestra's Washington concert

3 minute read
Dutoit: 'World's greatest maestro'?
Dutoit: 'World's greatest maestro'?
If ever the Philadelphia Orchestra and its interim music leader Charles Dutoit feel unappreciated at home, they needn't fly to Tokyo or Beijing for a morale boost. A quick Acela trip to Washington will suffice.

"It's my pleasure to welcome the greatest orchestra in the world— and the greatest maestro in the world— to this beautiful hall," Neale Perl, executive director of the Washington Performing Arts Society, told his audience Wednesday night. "I'm told the musicians are thrilled to be here."

"Here" was the Music Center at Strathmore, northwest of Washington. The Philadelphia Orchestra plays in the capital nearly every year, but always at the Kennedy Center. This was its first visit to Strathmore, and it wasn't a demotion. The five-year-old hall, which seats nearly 2,000, is a stunning American cathedral of birch and maple.

It's also intimate, which worried me a little, because prior to this concert, my most distinct Philadelphia Orchestra memories were of Christoph Eschenbach's ear-splitting Mahler and the apocalyptic clashing of Aaron Jay Kernis's Color Wheel. In other words, I knew this orchestra could get loud.

Whether or not you think, as Perl apparently does, that Charles Dutoit is the world's greatest maestro, Dutoit does know how to fine-tune his band, and the Philadelphia Orchestra filled but never overwhelmed the hall.

Hasty Glinka

The music at hand was an all-Russian program, opening with the overture to Glinka's opera Rusian and Lyudmila. Dutoit came onstage and conducted as if Perl's glowing introduction was a challenge, catapulting through the Glinka in record time. Blink and it was time for Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.

The guest soloist, the Russian pianist Nickolai Lugansky, plays the Rach 3 like James Bond: calm, cool and calculating, seducing his girl without stooping to sweet talk. (Lugansky let the orchestra's string section perform that task.)

Lugansky's reading of the Rachmaninoff was rhythmic, staccato and lightly pedaled. His goal was not to miss a note, and to my ear he didn't. The strings swooned as one on Dutoit's every cue.

It's not difficult to earn a standing ovation in Washington— think of the applause during the State of the Union address— but this concerto had the fans on their feet fast, with four callbacks for Lugansky. It was a monumental performance, if not necessarily moving.

Musicians as dancers

The thrill, for me, was Stravinsky's Petrushka. Dutoit approaches the ballet's 1911 score with reverence, almost as if the dancers are onstage. In their absence, the musicians must become characters.

It's worth noting that in the original book Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois wrote for the Ballets Russes, several dancers "play" instruments. And so the Orchestra's winds paraded across the stage, from the bass clarinet's merry organ grinder—with Dutoit pumping his own arm as Paul R. Demurs played— to the evil magician's flute. When the puppet Petrushka dances, the piano fights to be heard above the Orchestra, just as Nijinsky would have jumped higher and higher, fighting for a life with no strings attached.

These solos weren't the work of seasoned musicians who plopped down to play a warhorse they learned long ago; they were star turns practiced at home and honed by Dutoit to perfection.

"Greatest orchestra in the world"? In Strathmore Wednesday, it's at least safe to say this visiting orchestra sounded very, very good. And that it takes a good conductor to convince his musicians to play like world-class principal dancers.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra: Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3; Stravinsky, Petrushka; Glinka, overture to Rusian and Lyudmila; Nikolai Lugansky, piano; Charles Dutoit, conductor.
 May 26, 2010 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md. (301) 581-5100 or

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