In the more populist realm of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, the Philadelphia Orchestra got back to its core purpose - playing an all-Beethoven concert, as opposed to accompanying a Lord of the Rings movie. The combination of good weather and a Saturday night slot (usually, it's week nights) showed how true classical concerts, even ones without cannons and fireworks, do what skeptics suspect isn't possible.
Great music from another century not only sells, it excites, and not just the listeners who know it well. Among the 3,000 or so people at the semi-outdoor Mann Center, much between-movement clapping was heard - annoying to some but heartening to me: It meant many listeners weren't used to live Beethoven, a good thing to get used to, even in less-than-optimum conditions.
Though I welcome most any concert led by conductor-in-residence Cristian Macelaru, the density of the Mann schedule usually leaves time for only a single rehearsal, translating into a spotty concert. But the Leonore Overture No. 3 got a first-class performance, partly because the music wasn't treated just as a scene-setting introduction to the opera Fidelio, but also as a tone poem that embodies the larger piece. Particular attention was given to the offstage brass, which didn't just announce the arrival of the good guys in the plot but also took on startling gravity, suggesting a new social order that avenges the wrongs of the previous guard.
Most of the rest of the concert didn't get to that level; practically speaking, that's too much to hope for, though sterling professionalism was apparent. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 featured Curtis Institute student Janice Carissa in a performance that did all the right things with Mozartean grace (this is early Beethoven), nicely rounded phrases and references to the Bach-influenced counterpoint beneath - though with un-Beethovenian reserve. Make a mental note to catch up with Carissa in a few years.
The famous opening motif of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 truly sets the tone for much of what comes after, though in this performance the specificity of meaning so richly heard in Leonore was lacking. Without it, the music can seem like an episodic series of near-collisions. The inner movements went well, however, and the final movement had Macelaru's touch with all of the fine shading of an excellent Beethoven performance, as each phrase built on what came before. The audience showed every sign of loving it.