A few years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra started playing encores. The surprise of it added a welcome frisson to concerts, and it was a smart gift, an acknowledgment of the audience’s important role in keeping the music going.
The orchestra’s encore tradition fell away at some point, but certain nights cry out for its return — such as Friday’s led by conductor Nathalie Stutzmann. For one thing, if the audience’s enthusiasm could be interpreted as a wish, people seemed to be asking for more. And given the somewhat routine format and programming — overture, concerto, intermission, symphony — an encore would have been a nice jolt.
Fortunately, Stutzmann had other jolts in store. The French-born conductor started out life as a contralto, but she is also a pianist, and these two ways of thinking about music could be heard Friday at Verizon Hall translating themselves into the orchestral setting.
She “plays” the orchestra as a piano — which is to say, she manipulates variances in tempo to such a fine degree of control that it is as if she were acting with the single-minded will of a pianist. It’s not to say she is insensitive to matters of ensemble. But it was clear from the high degree of detailing that she is an individualist first and foremost.
Overwhelmingly, this level of attention led to revelations, not to mention drama. In Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, the dynamic changes were big, the tempo changes frequent. But the choices were anything but random. Phrases were shaped in the service of the underlying emotional intent — the singer in her. This meant a loving string afterglow in the section following the first movement’s great horn solo (played with admirable urgency by hornist Jennifer Montone).
I loved the way Stutzmann gave gestures and melodies in the last movement an inevitable drive toward the very last note.
There was only one point in the symphony when she took things too far: in her handling of the strings’ “molto dolce” melody sixteen bars before the end of the third movement. It was so slowed and stretched out it stuck out as a ridiculous indulgence in melodrama. But everyone is allowed a poor choice, and it was a small price to pay for hearing the personal stamp she put on the piece as a whole.
A personal stamp is what you want from a soloist, and results vary in this regard when the orchestra turns to one of its own for a concerto. Concertmaster David Kim stepped into the spotlight for Max Bruch’s soulful Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor. His is not a hero’s sound, though he offered a real and moving interpretation in the first movement. The violinist was quietly aglow in the second movement, especially in his rich middle register, and he had a moment or two of struggle with the quick finger work of the exhilarating last movement.
Kim was a fine player on this night (which was the second of three performances), but it can’t be said that he conveyed that extra boost of charisma a full-time soloist brings to the task.
A striking account of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”) opened the concert. As in the Brahms, Stutzmann paid close attention to such matters as dynamics, phrasing, and the exact length of notes. There was great specificity in the vision she conjured, and while I’m not sure exactly what aspect of the Scottish cave she was evoking with a crescendo that grew to terrifying heights, the sense of awe was unmistakable.
Additional performance: Saturday at 8 p.m. in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$164. www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.