Having just rehabilitated Schumann's unfairly neglected

Paradise and the Peri

, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed a service at least as important yesterday with its first local performance of Edgard Varèse's orchestral monstrosity,

Amériques

, since the 1926 premiere here under Leopold Stokowski.

The Kimmel Center audience was, to put it politely, rather less charmed than at last week's Schumann. But if Varèse's revolutionary orchestral fervor doesn't inspire some level of audience resistance, the piece has been too quiet - which it wasn't at yesterday's exhilarating, convincing performance. The composer's dense, beyond-

The-Rite-of-Spring

language screams with an imagination that's never been surpassed. And some listeners will always be put off by the police siren that runs intermittently through the piece.

The performance's instigator was guest conductor James Conlon, who is rarely without a significant cause. In his charming, informative preperformance talk, he placed the music chronologically in the burgeoning post-World War I metropolis of New York City, even to the point of identifying zoo sounds in the sprawling orchestral score.

Given the music's density and individualism, any reasonably convincing performance of

Amériques

is a heroic act (which would count out the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's surprisingly lifeless recording under Pierre Boulez). This one went well beyond that, thanks to Conlon's know-how. Galvanizing the personalities within the Philadelphia Orchestra usually involves finding ways for them to live up to their sonorous reputation, and indeed, Conlon's approach was based on keen, precise orchestral colors that were very much the provenance of the Fab Philadelphians. With special ownership of the piece established, a performance of special clarity emerged. The piece could be easily followed as a succession of fantastic outbursts grouped around a solo flute ritornello. My previous encounters with the piece have been on recordings, but Friday's performance showed that

Amériques

absolutely needs to be heard in person. These sounds don't take well to any sort of containment.

If

Amériques

is destined to remain on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire, it's due to the lack of an organizing principle strong enough to hold the outsized sonorities that the composer so audaciously created. But the piece at least found a far more congruent program companion than I'd ever guessed: Ravel's

La Valse

. Often shortchanged in rehearsal because it's heard so often,

La Valse

received a marvelously thoughtful performance full of myriad details that often go unheard, revealing the piece as a quarry of sounds less dense, more tonal, but clearly in reaction to a 1920s world similar to Varèse. Having suggested that Ravel was depicting the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Conlon gave his performance a strong Viennese accent.

Hélène Grimaud's performance of Beethoven's

Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor")

was the concert's most conventional attraction. And even though Grimaud has been heard in more scintillating form, her

Emperor

wasn't conventional or routine. She's possibly incapable of that. Her legato line never becomes too velvety, thanks to her Gallic sense of clarity, and never ceases to reiterate the hard-won qualities of Beethoven's inspiration. I love the way she organized the first movement with each of the piano's more introspective moments arriving with increasing quiet and slowness. Oddly, her concert garb - bare shoulders, pantaloon slacks - seemed more appropriate for a hot summer night at the Mann Center. But on gray December days, we can pretend, can't we?

The Philadelphia Orchestra repeats the program at 8 tonight at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Music Review

Philadelphia Orchestra

With conductor James Conlon and pianist Hélène Grimaud.

8 tonight at Verizon Hall. Information: 215-893-1999,

» READ MORE: www.philorch.org

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