This week was the Philadelphia Orchestra's "middle child" program. No hot soloists or provocative premieres, but homely, obviously temporary acoustical panels framing the Verizon Hall stage. When the orchestra began the concert with Debussy's
, everybody seemed to be saving energy for next week's Berlioz
Elsewhere, though, the program's outcome was unexpectedly wonderful. The acoustical panels reportedly aid the orchestra's ability to hear itself - and thus play better. Though chief conductor Charles Dutoit's Gallic urbanity might be a strange fit for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 - in which the composer capitulated to government censorship and, for the next seven symphonies, went underground with coded protest in the fabric of his music - it was a classic case of content translated into a sound world wholly different from the sometimes-coarse Soviet orchestras he had in his ear.
Dutoit's characteristically unforced tone colors and orchestral entrances devoid of sharp edges showed how well the composer covered his tracks but, by lacking emphatic rhetoric, made you listen beyond the surface power of the music's gestures. The orchestra's precise elegance in the second movement's rustic, village-band effects - a reference to the opera that got the composer in trouble, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - came with an element of cool detachment that meant you'd never mistake it for mere proletarian charm.
The third movement - which commentators have described as Shostakovich's crocodile tears - can meander amid unclear intentions, though Dutoit maintained a clear line of musical logic without passing judgment on the expressive content.
Shostakovich's veiled protest was most apparent in the fourth movement: The snare drum, which listeners might overlook completely in some performances, had a quiet, intractable relentlessness. One climax had a definite harmonic undertow. But not until the symphony's triumphant finish did you realize how skillfully the music's two-faced quality had insinuated itself: Those final moments felt eerily disturbing for lacking anything subversive. The music seemed to ask, "Is this the kind of mindless jingoism you really want?"
Oh yes, there was Debussy. Dutoit tamed the potentially messy pictorialism of Images with machine-tooled logic that made the music's ethnic influences seem a bit fake. That shouldn't happen with this French-music specialist; then again, conductors should sometimes delegate their specialties - if only to return later more refreshed.