Cleveland Orchestra principal flutist Joshua Smith left his audience wanting an encore, but seemed not to have one to deliver - an emblematic moment illustrating how flutists must search far and wide for first-class solo repertoire. Even his handpicked program, presented Tuesday by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the American Philosophical Society, had composers not known to attract Philadelphia ticket-buyers, from Carl Reinecke (whose music suggests that the world hasn't enough Mendelssohn) to the great modernist Elliott Carter.
Though Smith doesn't have the immediately identifiable voice of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Jeffrey Khaner and David Cramer, he is undoubtedly one of the most scrupulously artistic and versatile flutists in our midst and an obvious paragon of the Cleveland Orchestra's legendary integrity. Rather than glamorizing music with a Philadelphia-esque sound, the Clevelanders have long been a disarmingly clear artistic prism for any composer at hand, often achieving objectivity at its highest imaginable state. Smith reflects that sensibility by being up to any technical demand a piece may pose, but resisting flashiness - unless that's what the piece demands.
Most heroic was his performance of Carter's Scrivo in Vento. Though Carter's recent Flute Concerto contains some of his most inspired music - he uses the flute almost as a guide through the white-light tunnel into the next world - his 1991 Scrivo for unaccompanied flute is abrasive, even by his standards, with a demure melody interrupted by piercing out-of-left-field notes suggesting Orpheus being ambushed in the underworld. Judging from recordings of the work, Smith couldn't have served the piece more accurately, even though doing so left the audience more startled than intrigued.
Elsewhere, the recital's best moments came out of his close collaboration with pianist Christina Dahl. Not often does one hear such a sympathetic tone among chamber musicians whose respective instruments have such different sounds that they might be natural enemies. Thanks to the amplitude of Smith's sound, balance problems were minimal. And in Dahl's hands, any given phrase was like a constantly moving wave on a buoyant salt sea. Though the slow movement of Reinecke's Flute Sonata Op. 167 "Undine" is lovely, the rest really needed the kind of shaping Dahl gave it in order to communicate at all.
The duo was at its best in the program's two transcriptions, Schumann's Three Romances Op. 28 and Debussy's Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun, partly because the music itself so richly rewarded their efforts. Yet even they couldn't convince me that Schubert's ricochet creativity in Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen was inspired by anything other than a need to pay grocery bills. The piece is considered by some to be a summit in the flute literature. But then, summits are measured relatively.