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Music seethes with the fire of revolution. History is full of composers who faced down oppression: Shostakovich (composing revolutionary symphonies in secrecy for fear of his life), Rhiannon Giddens (crying out against the agony of enslavement), Pavel Haas (one of many composers sent to Auschwitz), Olivier Messiaen (writing Quartet for the End of Time in a German prisoner-of-war camp), or Beethoven (the woman freedom fighter of his Fidelio saving patriots from death). These and countless others rose like irrepressible ghosts in Verizon Hall on Friday, February 24, as the Philadelphia Orchestra observed the first anniversary of the war against the people of Ukraine.
The observance had not been announced in advance and had a spontaneous quality to it at the onset of the regular matinee. Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia Iryna Mazur was in the audience, and congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon. Matias Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc., spoke briefly (not more than a few sentences), but they were heartfelt words that rang true for management, labor, and audience alike.
Two of the composers on the day’s program were Russian, he noted, but had denounced oppression and fled Russia in search of artistic freedom. Let us celebrate, he said, “the unifying power of music.” His remarks were followed by a powerful performance of the Ukrainian national anthem under the baton of guest conductor Stéphane Denève, during which the audience stood, not in the usual mode of ovation, but in an expression of human solidarity.
A familiar figure at Verizon Hall
It was a tough act to follow, but Denève led the scheduled program with no lessening of fervor. He is a familiar and perhaps beloved figure on the Verizon Hall stage, and many of us recall his days as principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Today, he reigns as music director of the St. Louis Symphony (a post previously held by now-Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin) and has several other conducting gigs around the world.
The featured work on Friday’s program was the US premiere of UK-based Russian composer Elena Firsova’s Piano Concerto, Op. 175. Firsova completed the concerto three years ago for pianist Yefim Bronfman, well-known by Philadelphia audiences. He premiered the concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam last year and is performing it on tour this year and next. (2020 also marks the year Firsova lost her husband, composer Dmitri Smirnov, to Covid-19.)
This is a demanding powerhouse of a concerto, of particular interest for Bronfman’s unrelenting immersion in the music. His playing is bright with clarity, bold with strength. It was refreshing to see an old-fashioned paper score on the music desk, and Bronfman as his own page turner. I was pleased to be seated in the sweet spot for observing and listening to a solo pianist: face, hands, feet were visible in perfect alignment like the moon and two planets in the western sky that evening.
“Must it be?”
Perhaps with thoughts of death and loss, Firsova borrows a theme from Beethoven’s Op. 135 quartet (“Must it be?” “It must be!”) throughout this work. The composition follows traditional division into sections with familiar Italian tempo markings, but the melodic material leaps with abandon from orchestral section to piano to timpani. Firsova offers classical structure against a whirlwind of contemporary flourishes and a touch of atonality, making use of the full orchestra, including an array of percussion instruments, some of which could have been omitted or made optional (temple and wood blocks did not provide added value to this listener).
The work is listed as 20 minutes long, but seemed longer, not for being tedious, but for its expansive sweep. Firsova seems to look death in the eye, and with her magnetic gaze, stares down its inevitability. Throughout the work, Denève led vigorously with the baton in his right hand, his left hand floating and molding the work, inclining his head toward Bronfman to release yet another flurry of gorgeous tones and questioning inflections.
Ravel and Rachmaninoff
The program opened with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite from 1908. This was a largely gentle interpretation, reminding us that Ravel may have composed the work to be played as duets by children. The voluptuous eruption of sound that concludes the last movement could have continued for a longer period (Ravel’s fault) or reached a peak of poignancy that this particular interpretation missed by just a hair.
Following intermission, the orchestra presented a surprisingly modern take on Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony. This work is too romantic for some listeners, not romantic enough for others. I tend to lodge myself in the latter camp, pleased with the consummate musicianship of Denève and orchestra, but wishing there was less bombast and more innuendo and tender feeling as the symphony marched to its thrilling final moments.
What, When, Where
Ravel, Mother Goose Suite; Firsova, Piano Concerto, Op. 175; Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44. Conducted by Stéphane Denève. Yefim Bronfman, piano. The Philadelphia Orchestra. February 23-25, 2023, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus's Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling patron services at (215) 893-1999 or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, patron services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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