After all the hand-wringing over the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bankruptcy filing, it’s a pleasure to report that musically, everything is in order. Charles Dutoit’s direction was deft and subtle, moving effortlessly from hauntingly beautiful lyricism to stylized violence where needed. All the sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra played with beautiful blend and tone, an appropriately lean sonority, and phrasing that didn’t lapse into routine. Even the programming was inspired–two Stravinsky works inspired by Greek mythology. The payoff was not just in the concert’s thematic coherence, but even more so, in showing the immense expressive possibilities contained in Stravinsky’s neoclassicism.
The first half was Apollo, for string orchestra, perhaps the most purely beautiful piece Stravinsky ever wrote. Philly’s string section has long been the glory of the orchestra, and though the tradition of Stokowski and Ormandy’s luxuriant free bowing has been modernized, that tradition continues; the string playing was gorgeously nuanced. Dynamics were exquisitely shaded from phrase to phrase, sometimes note-to-note. Blend was faultless–to name one small example, the final pizzicato in the Pas d’action was not only perfectly together, but also perfectly, smoothly blended from the basses to the violins, so that it sounded like the strumming of a giant lute. Some of the syncopations and faster passages were less sharply defined than in other performances–every gesture, no matter how abrupt or energetic, fit into the lyrical whole. I understand how some (including NYT reviewer Anthony Tommasini) might have found this lackluster or one-dimensional, but I obviously don’t agree.
For Oedipus Rex, Dutoit and the orchestra shed their restraint and delivered a bracing, vehement rendition, attentive to the score’s peculiarly dry and austere timbre. The piano part was just prominent enough to color the texture; the percussion was appropriately explosive; the brass eschewed heaviness and thickness for an incisive, brilliant sonority. In his excellent program notes–a cut well above the ordinary–Paul Griffiths called attention to the fact that the instrumentation was not all that different from Petrushka, but the result was a world apart from the latter’s Fauvist technicolor hues. I think Tommasini was right about the soloists, led by Paul Groves and Petra Lang; uneven, but more often than not, effective. The male chorus is in some ways the true protagonist of this opera, and the large contingent from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale not only sang well (precision, blend, etc.), but more importantly acted through their singing–a necessity for this work, where the character played by the chorus is ambiguous. (For a glimpse of Dutoit’s way with this score, see this video with Groves, Lang, and the NHK Symphony.)
One effect: in Jocasta and Oedipus’s duet, Lang’s yammering was drowned out by Groves and the orchestra, which made me initially wonder why Stravinsky would have set that part so low in the mezzo’s range. But his intention became clear: Jocasta is losing her voice as she grows increasingly desperate–as she begins to realize the horror of her situation. Oedipus, on the other hand, still wants to know the truth, still does not comprehend that it will destroy him.
Perhaps the highest tribute I can pay to this performance is that it left us enthralled by the work itself. It is undeniably disturbing and moving, but this effect comes from the work’s strangeness, not any straining toward profundity. Stravinsky didn’t content himself with faux-antique monumentality, relying on oboes, modal themes, and heavy-handed brass fanfares to give us a movie-soundtrack version of ancient Greece. Instead, the work is bizarrely eclectic–coloratura for Jocasta’s arias, the “Warner Bros. fanfares” (Stravinsky’s own words), and almost comic moto perpetuuo choral writing for the narration of Jocasta’s suicide. (Griffiths was unafraid to point out this comic effect in the program notes.) All these avoid turning tragedy into stereotyped melodrama, and leave us genuinely disturbed, rather than instilling a predictable catharsis and release from a story we think we know already.
In the last of his Harvard lectures, The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein presented a lengthy analysis of Oedipus Rex, one of the most brilliant exegeses of a musical work I’ve ever encountered. Bernstein found elements of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rameau in Oedipus Rex, presented the final chorus as a Harvard fight song, and most famously argued that the work was deeply rooted in–of all things–Aida, from its first four notes. (The discussion of Oedipus Rex begins halfway through.)
Bernstein ended his lecture with a hopeful prediction, that the rediscovery of tonality after serialism would usher in an era of eclecticism in the best sense, a diversity of options all rooted in the deep, subconscious structures of tonality as a language–the “poetry of earth” as he called it. Certainly Oedipus Rex pulls off the feat of being simultaneously eclectic and coherent, unmistakably a work by this composer yet distinct in idiom from everything else he wrote. And this was all brilliantly realized by Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Tuesday night.
[UPDATE: I heard a recent broadcast of Dutoit conducting the same program with Groves and Lang in Geneva with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and it confirmed these reactions. Also, reviews from the Philadelphia run of these concerts here and here, which ominously note thin crowds. Carnegie looked like it was about 80% full. What’s the matter with Philly?]