In this Barber centennial year, audiences can be forgiven for thinking of standing at the first notes of the
Adagio for Strings
, as if for the national anthem. Yet the work does not fray or sound routine, as Dirk Brossé demonstrated when he opened the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia's second concerts under his leadership Sunday at the Perelman Theater.
The newly appointed music director is still assaying his resources, and he devoted this program largely to showing the eloquence and flexibility of his string players. His approach to the Adagio was straightforward. He avoided undue pathos and exaggerated metrical gestures to shape a performance that grew integrally to that impassioned climax followed by long silence and then quiet restatements. The work lives because it never explains its mystery. Brossé's view of the music never wavered or bowed to anguish. It seemed a passage through darkness toward some clearly focused light.
Only strings accompanied oboist Geoffrey Deemer in the Ralph Vaughan Williams Concerto in A minor for Oboe and Strings, and discrete pairs of winds joined to support cellist Hai-Ye Ni in Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. Vaughan Williams wrote 70 years ago for the English oboist Eugene Goosens. The composer might not recognize his work now because the oboe, in America, is much richer in sound and discursive range. Deemer exemplifies that evolution. His playing was bold, detailed, and shaped to fill a broad dynamic range. He caught the composer's witty turn of phrase, made the lyrical passages sing with shadings and nuance, and infused the virtuosic passages with color.
Ni, the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal cellist, seemed to find the apt proportions of the work immediately. Her playing moved easily atop the dimensions of the chamber orchestra, yet spoke to single instruments and sections within the orchestra in the chamber music tradition. She draws a beguiling sound from the instrument and found a different weight and quality for each variation. Her virtuosity belies the modest size of her left hand, for she made precision seem effortless in sections of extraordinary leaps. Her command of pitch at the highest range added flair to her handsomely proportioned playing. Brossé's orchestra offered bold colors in support; this collaboration prompted a standing ovation.
Midway, he conducted Puccini's Crisantemi, casting his strings in operatic roles, and, as a surprise, a piece of his own, The Great Wall of China. He told the audience he had conducted in China and heard an erhu player at the wall, improvising a moving melody. He wrote it down and arranged it for string, flute, and clarinet. The brief piece opened with a flute song suggesting that the erhu player might have heard Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Nevertheless, Brossé preserved a flowing melody with pentatonic flavoring that showed off his string section admirably. In introducing his work, he pronounced its title in Chinese. Looking to violinist Mei-chen Liao for approbation, he saw her lower her head in despair. He settled for "Great Wall of China."