June 28, 2006

Pleasant surprises at the Mann says Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns, Music Critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer

Sometimes the least-promising evenings at the Mann Center turn into the most pleasant.

The Monday concert, for example: It was an odd night of the week for the Philadelphia Orchestra to be there, and the program had no blazing superstar soloist or conductor with big, animated hair to inspire a large audience to make its way through the soggy air left by the latest round of monsoon.

But the semi-outdoor stage hadn't washed away, a decent crowd made the trip, and the orchestra was in good form under the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's outgoing music director, Andrew Litton. Pianist Stewart Goodyear, whose previous appearances garnered comments like "promising" and "interesting," bordered on being extraordinary. 

This probably wasn't quality arriving through happenstance, but synergy without fear, a case of musicians and audiences with more than a casual commitment to being there but with nothing great to prove - and no aggressive Itzhak Perlman fans trying to poach your aisle seats. The performances of the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 showed a commitment to avoiding the kind of routine performances frequently heard with oft-played classics, and the audience was the sort to appreciate that.

The Toronto-born, Curtis Institute-educated Goodyear has another life as an improviser, and though he wouldn't do that with Grieg, his phrasing was the work of an artist thinking beyond conventional lines - and with playing that was both hot in its energy level and amazingly clean in technique. You don't often get that combination in simultaneous extremes. The piece itself is a series of miniatures strung together, so Litton was particularly noteworthy in his flexible but confident treatment of transitions.

Litton conducted Tchaikovsky with extraordinary mastery of tempo changes and knowledge of the expressive power that can come from them. It's easy to let the big climaxes take care of themselves in this climax-prone symphony, but Litton made them even more powerful by putting the brakes on the tempo in ways so subtle as to border on subliminal, while telegraphing the escalating gravity of the moment.

Also in such moments, the brass sections effectively functioned to give interior muscle to the texture until finally showing themselves with a hugely effective knife-edge glint. With a rather different effect, the symphony's many incidental solos for the principal players all made the right points, but Litton's orchestral balances meticulously revealed what ideas they grew out of and what they led to. 

And you could hear it all with none of the artificial amplification qualities that made the Philadelphia Orchestra sound so antiseptic last week. You know that a sound design is working when you don't notice it. This was the best news of all.