Verizon Hall is not equipped with seat belts. But they might’ve been warranted for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Friday concert in which music of Bach and company was turned upside down by those who know how to do it.
The concert had lighter-weight Mozart, some breezy uproarious Stravinsky but also Philadelphia-born composer Melinda Wagner, whose music pulls no punches (well, she’s from Philly), aided by guest conductor Susanna Mälkki, a modern music specialist who doesn’t smooth over any rough edges.
For all of the title’s childlike aura, Wagner’s 2008 Little Moonhead, Three Tributaries Inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No, 4, uses Bach-like building blocks — plus a few from Ravel — in a rollercoaster ride that’s unusually playful from this never-demure 64-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner.
The scurrying scales make all sorts of left turns as the harpsichords slinks subversively along the periphery. The second movement goes into intense Shostakovich territory, which suggests how much ground is covered in this 14-minute piece. The third movement has the orchestra going all sorts of ways at once but somehow ending in the same unison place.
Conductor Mälkki encouraged extra boldness from the principal player In the orchestra’s first encounter with this piece. Though the opening moments felt uncertain, the intricate components subsequently interlocked as they should, though not as snugly as one can hope for on future performances.
A year since the arrival of principal oboist Philippe Tondre, his Mozart Oboe Concerto performance was another chapter in getting to know him. Some longtime listeners fervently wanted the retired Richard Woodhams to be succeeded by a direct artistic heir of the multi-generational influence of legendary Marcel Tabuteau, who was principal oboist 1915-1954 and taught at the Curtis Institute. I’m just relieved the high-caliber Tondre, who hails from Alsace, was landed amid these challenging times. Also, Tabuteau recordings suggest that his standards now are so pervasive that his method is simply how fine modern oboists play.
I love Tondre’s dusky, full-bodied tone and respect his nonchalant attitude toward the flashier aspects of the concerto. The slow movement wasn’t just deeply expressive, but imaginatively so. Elsewhere in the concerto, more rhythmic definition would’ve been appreciated, though he displayed plenty of that in the next piece, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, which borrows melodies attributed to Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736), a contemporary of Bach, as a vehicle for Stravinsky to look back at commedia dell’arte theatrical tradition.
Mälkki’s tempos for Stravinsky were strangely moderate, which made the music seem self-consciously cute. The performance definitely picked up halfway through with the tarantella movement, while the orchestra’s principal players, starting with concertmaster David Kim, captured the music’s knockabout spirit. Trombonist Nitzan Haroz was downright boisterous — and welcomely so.
The Philadelphia Orchestra program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23 at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $40-$169. Information: www.philorch.org or 215-893-1999.