Concert Review: Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music

The Philadelphia Orchestra presented the first concert of their BeethovenNOW series in which they are pairing Beethoven’s piano concertos and symphonies with works by contemporary composers. Since the orchestra will host their 163rd Anniversary Concert and Ball at the Academy on Saturday, they are performing their regular concert series there this weekend as well.

Thursday’s concert started with Vivian Fung’s Dust Devils. The ten minute piece has a three-part structure with a momentous beginning, strings playing fortissimo sul ponticello, combining with xylophone, glockenspiel, brass and timpani to drive the sound to a booming high point. Fung then pares down the sound to soft colors of flute, harp, and piano in the delicate middle section which builds to a vigorous finale. Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation highlighted the complex orchestration which could be heard clearly in the Academy of Music’s dry acoustics.

Yefim Bronfman played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 59, starting the concerto particularly softly. Maestro Nézet-Séguin brought out the orchestra’s delicate sound, especially in the second movement after the opening, allowing the pianissimo strings to lightly support the piano. Mr. Bronfman reserved the fireworks for the third movement, playing the fast runs and trills with ease. He then played a scherzo movement of an early Beethoven sonata as an encore. The orchestra’s incredible woodwinds and horns were played beautifully, with exceptionally fine performances by oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld and clarinetist Sam Caviezel.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 had its world premiere in the Academy of Music on November 6, 1936. Leopold Stokowski conducted the performance and Rachmaninov was pleased with the performance. The critics, however, were not. It is hard to imagine anyone not liking the lush sounds of this romantic symphony. Rachmaninov’s orchestration is so intricately balanced and he used so many orchestral colors, knowing the Philadelphia Orchestra of 1936 could pull it off. Happily, the Philadelphia Orchestra of 2020 has both a maestro who can conduct subtle rubati and a host of excellent musicians. Ricardo Morales’ soulful clarinet, Peter Smith’s smooth oboe, Jeffrey Khaner’s flute, David Kim’s violin solos, and Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia’s English horn playing were just some of the high points of this great performance. After the universal rejection of Rachmaninov’s beloved composition when it was premiered in 1936, Thursday’s performance in the same hall eighty-four years later was a resounding success.


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