Richard Strauss tone poems are so tightly written, and with such masterly slick surfaces, that they can fly by with a sense of the predictable, one performance much like the other. Probing and tinkering only make the music dither - at least in Don Juan, the opening piece in the Philadelphia Orchestra's mostly Strauss program Friday. Were we mainly at the Kimmel Center for the tactile value of Strauss sonority rendered with optimum Philadelphian glamor? Why not?
Actually, there was much more than that to chief conductor Charles Dutoit's treatment of the music, which was notable for what he didn't do. Performances Strauss conducted himself near the end of his life (preserved in Nazi-era hi-fi) are at subtle variance from what's usually heard today. His music is presented more than explained - giving it a certain classicism. And while conductors often chart the climaxes in Don Juan according to peaks in the string writing, Strauss gave more gravity to his own brass writing. As did Dutoit.
The program's other Strauss tone poem, Don Quixote, is a better, more satisfying piece. In a less-than-tidy theme-and-variations format, the composer had more sophisticated musical characterizations that amount to a psychological tour of Cervantes - along with graphic depictions of the obligatory windmills. The music's opening passage is a keen portrait of Quixote's mind coming unhinged. Interestingly, Iberian conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos tends to have a high old time with that - while the Swiss Dutoit, rarely one to encourage unhingement, built a great climax. Dutoit also found contrapuntal tension between the extreme treble and bass lines in the spacious orchestration, creating a frame for more chaotic events in the middle.
Cello solos (which depict the title character) were played by veteran Finnish cellist Arto Noras, who is heard too rarely in the United States, and characterized Quixote more as an accident-prone poet than a buffoon - his tools being an effortless, touchingly demure legato. His big cadenza/soliloquy was lofty; I prefer sharper rhetorical details. Principal violist Choong-Jin Chang was quite the melancholic Sancho Panza, but with hearty, big-sonority playing.
Between Strausses, acclaimed young German violinist Arabella Steinbacher played Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in what might be called alabaster-statue Mozart: otherworldly, above it all, existing in the realm of the gods. It was also monochromatic - even in the Turkish passage of the finale.