If the Curtis Institute is about achieving greatness in various forms, an essential part of that would have to be experiencing the pitfalls that are everywhere in the symphonic repertoire. Nothing dire happened when the Curtis Symphony Orchestra played Jennifer Higdon, Brahms, and Bartok under Robert Spano Monday at the Kimmel Center; the showcase element of the concert was delivered with swaggering confidence. But that doesn't mean any given masterpiece's DNA was located.
The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra was most distinctive: Rather than running the movements together as so many conductors do, Spano treated them as discrete entities in ways that reminded you of the music's strangeness, how movements start in mid-thought and end in ways suggesting that there's plenty left to say.
Spano pursued a great variety of string sounds. The opening pianissimos were rendered in ways that only muscular young players could achieve: The volume level was extremely low but had so much power in reserve that the effect was felt in your bones rather than heard. Any number of other moments had the strings playing close to their instruments' bridges with equally arresting effect.
But since the piece is a concerto for orchestra, the composer provided many jewel moments for individuals, and it was here that the Curtis Symphony Orchestra gave away its conservatory status. Perfect playing isn't enough; personality is essential. You heard that in the conversational rhetoric of flutist Patrick Williams but rarely elsewhere.
More elusive was Higdon's blue cathedral, a contemplative tone poem that pursues not an exterior narrative but an interior one, composed after the death of Higdon's younger brother. The piece has no explicit pathos; outright lamentation is never heard. More quietly, blue cathedral asks how life can go on without the deceased. But when the music's nascent sense of loss isn't there, half the piece is missing no matter how well it's played, which was the case in the performance under student conductor Kensho Watanabe.
The Brahms Double Concerto is problematic when played with symphonic grandeur. In the few successful performances I've heard, it's been treated like a chamber concerto, minimizing its sense of sprawl and allowing the solo violinist and cellist to mesh more tightly as the players take turns carrying the piece.
Well, none of that happened here. Nonetheless, violinist Juliette Kang, the Philadelphia Orchestra's first associate concertmaster, was a beacon even in moments when the concerto is whirling with activity. And the much-missed cellist Efe Baltacigil (previously of the Philadelphia Orchestra) was able to work his tone-based magic roughly 50 percent of the time. The final movement was the most successful: It's Brahms in quasi-Hungarian mode, with the dancelike rhythms inspiring a lightness from soloists, conductor, and orchestra, allowing the piece's voice to emerge more clearly than elsewhere in the performance.