When Wolfgang Sawallisch was winding up his Philadelphia Orchestra tenure, some of his concert programs became curiously modest. Remember Richard Strauss' 45-minute wind band piece, The Happy Workshop? In contrast, Charles Dutoit is veering toward the gargantuan in his last three subscription concerts as chief conductor. His Strauss choice is the opera Elektra later this week. And on Friday, he poured on waves of sound in Scriabin's unapologetically extravagant Poem of Ecstasy with the Verizon Hall organ powering the climaxes from within.
The biggest point of interest was four excerpts from Debussy's Martyrdom of St. Sebastien, starting with the kind of 10-note whole-tone scale that only this composer could infuse with so many poetic implications. Is each note an arrow piercing his martyred body, as suggested by centuries of semierotic iconography? Or is the scale a portal into the rarefied consciousness of saints? The piece has long been controversial: Quickly composed and not entirely orchestrated by the composer, the music may sound thin to some ears, but eloquently spare to mine. Every note counts and can now be heard as a harbinger of the metrically impulsive music of Olivier Messiaen.
Dutoit isn't always one for darkness and mystery. And not every conductor finds that in this score. Yet Dutoit did and was at his most entrancing, giving an intense sense of concentration to the often-oblique strands of music, allowing Debussy's ambiguity to suggest many layers of meaning. And for those who consider the composer's unfinished operatic adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher one of the great might-have-beens, this music is a hint of what Debussy maybe had in store.
The rest of Dutoit's "honorarily French" program included Mozart's Symphony No. 31 ("Paris"), showing what we've missed by not hearing more of Dutoit's suave, trim, smart way with this composer. But we'll still have concertmaster David Kim, who played one of his best-ever performances in Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3.
The younger Kim showed his Juilliard School roots readily with an aggressive vibrato and businesslike interpretive manner that's still sometimes apparent in his old concerto repertoire. However, his Saint-Saens performance was state-of-the-art Kim with the richer tone quality he's developed since becoming Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster some 12 years ago, and his way of letting the music happen, playing with a technical comfort that naturally releases the music's emotional content. At times, Kim seemed to be in a parallel time zone that used any given tempo as a perimeter for flexible phrasing that can momentarily convince you this is one of the great concertos.