With most reputable symphony orchestras, any given performance is an amalgam of those who have conducted it in recent years - give or take a decade. The Curtis Symphony Orchestra more likely echoes what's on the players' iPods - at least with repertoire that allows that collective consciousness to be unleashed. Bernstein's
West Side Story Symphonic Dances
The Rite of Spring
did just that Sunday at the Kimmel Center, and the walls indeed shook. It was quite something.
It is easy to associate the Bernstein suite with humid, under-rehearsed nights at the Mann Center, making it an odd choice for a program to be repeated tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall. But this music's impact on Americans in serious performances is like that of mid-period Verdi on Italians, the song "Somewhere," in particular, being the national anthem of marginalized special-interest groups. And the kind of intense sonority generated by the Curtis orchestra is just what's needed to remind you what meaning the piece can have.
Thanks perhaps to their iPods, this orchestra swings as few can, but with control and clarity that comes with mastery over their instruments. Put that together with guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach's penchant for the demonic, and the "Mambo" section became hugely menacing. This music needs to be dangerous; this time, it was.
Stravinsky sat surprisingly well with Bernstein: Both stole from outside sources - Stravinsky from Ukrainian folk songs, Bernstein from Stravinsky and Beethoven - as a route to the elemental. Sunday's Rite bore lingering fingerprints from Michael Tilson Thomas having rehearsed the piece in Curtis residency earlier this year; he emphasized how ethnic speech yielded melodic quirks. Eschenbach, with a stick technique so clear you could chart the music's complex metrical changes, emphasized the many layers of simultaneous events with a sense of counterpoint suggesting J.S. Bach reincarnated as Attila the Hun. And the more Stravinsky you hear here, the more exciting it is.
Curtis president Roberto Diaz was the soloist on Penderecki's 1983 Viola Concerto. Though there is nobody I trust more with this or any other contemporary viola repertoire - as usual he made a passionate case for the piece - elements conspired against the performance.
The piece itself doesn't reach as high as his Cello Concerto No. 2 (written for Mstislav Rostropovich, who died last week and to whom the Viola Concerto performance was dedicated). But it effectively uses, in Shostakovichian fashion, tiny intervallic cells growing in engaging ways.
The chamber-size orchestration, however, as played by the full contingent, left the music's progression somewhat obscured. I fear that few attending this gala-esque occasion were bothered by that.