Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Philadelphia Orchestra - Ravel, Liszt and Rachmaninoff - 06/03/09

Conductor: Charles Dutoit
Ravel: Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Liszt: Totentanz, S. 126 - Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Ravel: La Valse

I always find the last performance of a musical season bittersweet, half-way between the deep gratefulness for the unforgettable memories and the dreadful thought of the few months ahead without the same steady stream of inspired, and less inspired but rarely completely devoid of enjoyment, moments. Last night, it was WPAS' 2008-2009 Orchestra Series that was coming to an end at the Kennedy Center concert hall with a little help from our venerable neighbor to the North, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by the eminent the-world-is-his-oyster Charles Dutoit. The special perk of hearing my homeboy and international superstar pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet play two very different and equally challenging piano pieces from Ravel and Liszt conjured up even higher expectations, and everything indeed eventually added up with much success.

Commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, scion of one of Vienna's über-prominent families, after he was amputated during World War I, the first piece was effectively composed for the left hand by a Ravel apparently quite intrigued by the challenge. The concerto presents itself as a straightforward 18-minute single movement, but the music's intense complexity makes it difficult to believe that only one hand, and generally the less dexterous one, is working the keyboard. Last night, the tight and ever-present orchestra joined forces with the technically impressive pianist to make sure that the melodic passages soared and conquered, and the result was a stirring introduction to an evening full of life, music and dance.
After regaining the use of his two hands, Thibaudet treated us to a thrilling account of Liszt's 'Dance of Death" in all its macabre glory. Inspired by the idea of death after coming face to face with Orcagna's nightmare-inducing fresco Il trionfo della morte in Pisa's campo santo cemetery, it took no less than 27 years for the composer and the world to first hear it performed live by Hans von Bulow in 1865. If it sounded anything close to what we got yesterday though, it was definitely worth the wait. Shamelessly revelling in down-and-dirty sounds to convey pure demonic fun while still letting quieter and more polished passages shine through as well, orchestra and soloist adroitly led by maestro Dutoit brilliantly contributed in making these brazenly Gothic variations of the Gregorian chant Dies Irae my personal highlight of the evening.
But the festivities were not over yet, and Rachmaninoff and his Symphonic Dances started the dance-centric second part of the program with their well-known infectious three-note pattern that keeps on obstinately coming back, along with more appearances by the ever-popular Dies Irae. Charles Dutoit proved to be an endlessly energetic conductor leading with his baton and his whole body the more than willing orchestra into colorful and exuberant merriment.
After some much excitement taken in, I have to say that Ravel's Valse sounded kind of anti-climatic to me, even though everybody on the stage gave it their all and the orchestra's famed rich sound happily resonated in all its splendor. A long standing ovation did not earn us any encore, and pouring rain was waiting for us outside, but even that did not manage to dampen our high spirits.

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