There came a sound Friday night in Verizon Hall not even an orchestra can make. It happened in the slow movement of Saint-Saëns'
Symphony No. 3, "Organ,"
and it was just as much a feeling as a sound - a note so low (yet quiet) that you could nearly count its per-second pulses, like a natural phenomenon toying with the atmospheric pressure.
Its source? It came from Fred - after an encounter so personal, it seems appropriate to be on a first-name basis - or, formally, the Kimmel Center's Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. In Saint-Saëns' symphony, the instrument had exactly the power and scope of timbres you want from an instrument that must compete with something pushing out as much sound as the Philadelphia Orchestra. Organist Michael Stairs curated a beautiful spread of tone qualities in this battle of the plush.
Gianandrea Noseda conducted, slipping into town between performances of Andrea Chénier at the Met. This is an organ piece, yes, but also string piece. Noseda pulled an intense, digging quality from the strings through generous bow pressure. Don S. Liuzzi's timpani and Christopher Deviney's cymbals matched the organ for mass of sound, but offered nothing brash.
A subtle French thread ran through the program. James Ehnes was soloist in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, written partially in Paris for a Parisian violinist. Ehnes, sometimes a reserved player, gave the third movement a little less passion than it deserves. But he has the gift of subtlety. And charisma. In the first movement, his lovely lower register achieved great presence even without volume.
Noseda brought with him a kind of listening test: Who was this composer with the snap of Bizet in the opening, Respighi-like impressions, and an occasional twist of Stravinsky? Alfredo Casella was born in Italy, schooled at the Paris Conservatoire, and consorted with an international crowd (he was also director of the Boston Pops, briefly, in the 1920s). Like his student Nino Rota, his music is a panoply of styles, especially in the "Symphonic Fragments" from La donna serpente. What it has, though, is the turn-on-a-dime directness of film music (it was not written for film, but opera), canny orchestrations, and the ardor of a narrator who will use any tool he can find to tell the story he wants to tell.