Very clever, Maestro.
Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos assembled just the kind of feel-good concert that audiences need during the dead of winter - with a value-added surprise. On Thursday's start of his second week with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he paired two graphic pieces of musical storytelling, Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream incidental music and Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, and not until the end did you realize the wind writing that begins Mendelssohn's overture is a close cousin (in instrumentation, manner, and chord voicings) to that which ends Sheherazade.
Symphonic programs are rarely bookended so neatly. A coincidence? Not with a conductor as accomplished, cultivated, and seasoned as the 76-year-old Frühbeck.
He always draws stylishly played, coloristically attuned performances in interpretations that aren't markedly original but allow fresh experience. His current visit, however, seems to be on a higher level than before. Also, his relatively recent Bruckner Symphony No. 3 with the Dresden Philharmonic is one of the best in that repertoire. Wolfgang Sawallisch's Indian summer happened about the same age; Frühbeck seems to be in more vigorous health.
The Mendelssohn was its light, fun self with two seldom-played numbers from the incidental music score that recap previous themes in curious, haphazard ways. The Philadelphia Singers Chorale was appropriately fairylike.
Frühbeck's Sheherazade hit the seldom-reached Stokowski standard. Though nobody beats conductor Myung-Whun Chung for specificity of storytelling in this evocation of the legend of a woman who spins tales to stave off execution, Frühbeck always found narrative-rooted reasons for the music's thematic repetition (one of its weak points). He was unafraid to conjure some high-Hollywood moments of string-tone lushness, but did so sparingly and thrillingly. Unlike Charles Dutoit, whose Rimsky phrasing can be suave bordering on fey, Frühbeck seems not to love artifice. I'm with him; I like Sheherazade unfiltered.
Incidental solos were full of personality. Concertmaster David Kim smartly varied his vibrato, using almost none near the end as if to convey the storyteller's exhaustion, and enjoyed a chamber-music-like rapport with harpist Margarita Csonka Montanaro. Hornist Jennifer Montone's foreground/background spatial effects were especially piquant. Oboist Richard Woodhams had a wonderful question-and-answer quality to his phrasing. Daniel Matsukawa's rich tone suggested there's a trombone hidden inside his bassoon. As of yesterday afternoon, tonight's performance was announced as going on as scheduled. Good. The public needs this.