On Saturday morning, I headed to Philadelphia to do some work for an article I'll soon be writing. While there, I took the opportunity to belatedly hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play in Verizon Hall for the first time. (Truth be told, the two incidents are not unrelated.) The orchestra's short but satisfying concert opened with Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring soloist Janine Jansen. I've written previously here about this excellent young Dutch violinist, and she didn't disappoint tonight, providing sometimes visceral, sometimes gentle and always thoroughly considered rendition of the well-trodden work.
But what's got me sitting here typing into the wee hours is the altogether extraordinary account of John Adams's Harmonielehre Donald Runnicles conducted tonight, in the work's Philadelphia Orchestra premiere. I've lived with the original Edo de Waart recording for what seems like ages now, and have also heard the Simon Rattle version. And I was utterly convinced that I'd heard it performed live once before the recent David Robertson/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall, which I blogged about here, but I can find no evidence of this via Google, the New York Times website or my own meager, incomplete personal archives. (Was it the last piece on the program when Leonard Slatkin conducted the New York Philharmonic premiere of Adams's Violin Concerto, I wonder?)
True, Runnicles's opening salvo wasn't as shattering as Robertson's had been. But far more details emerged from the mix in this performance. Bernard Holland nailed it in his review of the Robertson account at Carnegie: "The orchestra made all the wonderful big noises... but it was less successful at rhythms that must be sharp enough to cut."
That wasn't the case tonight. The hazy stretch between the opening explosions and the horn-led second subject proceeded with a greater sense of structural integrity and momentum here. And what a gloriously dreamy sound Runnicles elicited from the Philadelphia players when the solo horn played over tawny violas midway through the first movement! The bombastic conclusion suggested that if Robertson's account had been the more immediately overwhelming, it was only because Runnicles chose to hold more energy in reserve for that final push over the cliff, as it were.
Likewise, I've never heard a more precisely balanced, gorgeous version of the second movement than the one presented here. The sound world here runs from Debussy's impressionism toward Holst's outer Planets, with agonizing disturbances inspired by the Adagio of Mahler's Symphony No. 10. (More disturbing, in an unmusical sense, was the cell phone that interrupted the movement's waning chords.) The third movement opened with a crystalline shimmer, and built to an ebullient conclusion.
No question about it, this was a concert to cherish and remember. I was also very much impressed by the handsome hall, the clear acoustics of which surely had something to do with the exacting balances Runnicles elicited tonight. (David Patrick Stearns's Philadelphia Inquirer review of this program in an earlier performance is here, just past his dismissal of Terry Riley's reputedly dismissable Sun Rings as played by the Kronos Quartet and others.)
I don't mean to slight David Robertson here: he remains one of the boldest, most inventive programmers working in this country, and from what I can tell, he's a technically accomplished and inspiring conductor. But Donald Runnicles, who proved his Adams bona fides in the premiere run of Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera, is apparently a musician whose breadth I'd previously underestimated. I won't make that mistake again.
Peter Il'yich Tchaikovsky - "Danse Russe" from Swan Lake; Aram Khachaturian - "Nocturne" from Masquerade Suite; Camille Saint-Saëns - Havanaise and Introduction et Rondo capriccioso; Dmitri Shostakovich - "Romance" from The Gadfly; John Williams - "Main Theme" from Schindler's List; Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending; Maurice Ravel - Tzigane - Janine Jansen, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth (Decca)
Felix Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto in E minor; Max Bruch - Romance in F major and Violin Concerto No. 1 - Janine Jansen, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)
Andrew Russo - Dirty Little Secret (Endeavor Classics)
Johann Sebastian Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I - Wanda Landowska (RCA Red Seal)