Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's final concert in its regular Kimmel Center season had satisfying news everywhere on the taste spectrum, from Beethoven on down, but not for everybody at the same time. Those who applauded like crazy for the first half might have exited quickly after the second. I was among the exiters.
The concert began with Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in a performance with strengths in all places where the orchestra and its music director, Dirk Brosse, have previously been wanting in this repertoire: The interpretation was cogent and the playing close to first-class. But the second half had Brosse doubling as composer in a plan you'd think couldn't lose: Pictures at an Exhibition, not the famous suite by Mussorgsky, but Brosse's own reactions to seven paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Mussorgsky burrowed into the psychology of the paintings he saw so completely that you don't need to see them to enter the music. Brosse invented narratives to the paintings he chose – all of them thoughtful, sensitive, and detailed (to judge from his pre-performance comments) – and essentially wrote film scores around those ideas. So listeners needed to see the painting in conjunction with the music – and did – in what turned out to be something like the Philadelphia Orchestra's movie nights at Verizon Hall.
Brosse put his most questionable foot forward: Edward Hicks' painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts William Penn negotiating with Native Americans, had music from both camps bouncing back and forth, sounding like the score to a 1940s John Wayne movie. This wasn't music but clichéd effects assembled rather than composed – and without a film director ordering the narrative and telling the composer when to stop.
More artistically credible movements came from paintings that had the least surface activity, such as the blocks of sound for Mark Rothko's Untitled and the spare Road and Trees, by Edward Hopper. In most others, you could hear cinematic-master-shot-music coming well before it arrived. In the movie world, that's called getting the job done, and for listeners, that was just fine (and I wish them well). But to me, this was not a good use of Chamber Orchestra's resources.
Brosse's new-music instincts also seemed jammed by presenting Curtis Institute student composer Dai Wei in a piece titled Two of Us that sounded quite unfinished. She was directed to play off Beethoven's Symphony No. 1, and one could hear that in the use of rhythm. But so many new pieces are commissioned like graduate-school assignments, basing a piece on something pre-existing inhibits creativity as much as inspiring it. What ever happened to asking composers to write what they want?