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A surprisingly powerful nor’easter couldn’t hold off the Philadelphia Orchestra this past weekend, which presented its weekend series of concerts without interruption despite the roughly eight inches of snow that blanketed Center City. The program of two familiar works from Beethoven and Mussorgsky, heard alongside a more recent composition by Philly-based composer Ke-Chia Chen, could certainly warm the audiences who braved the winter weather.
Even more impressive: the debuting conductor, Daniele Rustioni, pulled double duty on Saturday, January 29—in two different states. He returned to Verizon Hall for the 8pm performance with the orchestra after leading a matinee of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (That performance was also simulcast to movie theaters around the world.) It’s a heavy, time-crunching assignment that Yannick Nézet-Séguin has also attempted before, though I don’t believe he’s ever done it in a blizzard.
Rustioni, 39 and from Milan, shares other traits with our maestro, including an exuberant manner on the podium and a tendency to regale the audience before beginning a work. He charmingly punctuates his remarks with “no,” which Italians deploy as a linguistic placeholder in the same way that Americans tend to use “like.” I often grow weary of too much interstitial chat, but it was a warm and disarming way for an unfamiliar conductor to introduce himself.
No introduction needed
The concert itself—judging, at least, from the audience reaction—suggested that Rustioni needed no introduction. The 90-minute, intermissionless program built steadily to the grandeur of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that had patrons leaping to their feet scarcely past the last sounded note. The famous piano suite, heard here in a famous orchestration by Ravel, offers a riot of musical colors and moods that take the listener on a vivid journey through the art gallery of their minds.
A skilled hand at opera, Rustioni kept the piece flowing smoothly, with clean transitions from each thematically discrete movement and good attention to detail among the solo instrumentation. He underlined the ways that themes mutate as they recur throughout the suite—the way the stateliness of the opening “Promenade” theme can be infused with anxiety or serenity. He drew out playfulness from the strings in “Tuileries” and a foreboding terror to “Catacombs,” which contrasted nicely with the exuberance of the proceeding “Limoges” movement, which depicts the bustle of an open-air market.
Chen’s The Desires, a concerto for viola and string orchestra dating from 2006, proved the concert’s discovery. As a composer, she doesn’t shy away from harmonic richness, even when she infuses the solo lines with a leaner, more rustic sound that evokes folk music. With its somewhat occluded sound, the viola is often used to represent loss or grief—in Chen’s hands, it becomes an ideal avatar for the title’s desire in its many forms, from romantic longing to yearning for a homeland.
Choong-Jin Chang, the orchestra’s principal violist, undertook the solo duties with great vigor and lyricism. His sound is refined yet muscular, easily cutting through the shimmering opulence of Chen’s orchestral writing, and matching the mood of each of the concerto’s three movements. He particularly brought a sense of purposeful unease to the wavering pitches of the final movement, which Chen wrote to sound like the Chinese erhu.
Chang, Rustioni, and the orchestra created a performance where the strings and the soloist balanced each other at times, fought at others, and ultimately came together in a spirit of musical revolution—a journey through the many stages of desire that felt fully realized. The audience warmly received Chen when she was brought onstage for a solo bow.
Worth braving the storm
Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 was a slight disappointment. Despite drawing luscious sound from every corner of the orchestra—including the arresting off-stage trumpet solo, played by principal David Bilger—Rustioni’s interpretation lacked a distinct point of view. This was particularly jarring given that the subjects it depicts—injustice, police brutality, and the power of collective action—are as relevant as ever.
Still, the concert heralded him as a conductor to watch, and gratefully introduced composer Chen to a wider public. All you had to do to hear world-class music was put on your boots.
What, When, Where
Pictures from an Exhibition. Beethoven, Leonore Overture No. 3. Chen, The Desires, for viola and orchestra. Mussorgsky, Pictures from an Exhibition. Conducted by Daniele Rustioni. Choong-Jin Chang, viola. The Philadelphia Orchestra. January 28-29, 2022, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus's Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus requires all patrons aged 5 years or older to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Masks are required at all times inside the concert hall. Seating is not distanced.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus 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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