The Philadelphia Orchestra has a rather plastic idea of the concert format these days. On Wednesday night, that meant a hybrid of the talk-and-play concerts it has done under various names over the last two decades, plus offering the LiveNote app that allows the audience to follow real-time program notes on mobile devices.
The start time was earlier than usual (6:30 p.m.), and tickets a flat $45 for an intermission-less concert of about 75 minutes. It would be hard to say the format struck a chord with ticket buyers, given the audience in the low hundreds that turned out in Verizon Hall. A work in progress, perhaps.
Still, composer Jennifer Higdon put on a brave face. She was the evening's folksy host (along with minimally talkative conductor Robert Spano), inquiring inexplicably at one point of Benjamin Beilman, soloist in her Violin Concerto, the name of his favorite restaurant. Higdon asked about music, too, and the orchestra played excerpts, which helped put it all together in the audience's ear when the piece was played straight through.
As a piece of major talent, Beilman's playing spoke for itself. Even those who heard him when he was a Curtis Institute student or a member of Astral Artists' selective roster might have been startled by his polish and power in Higdon's 2008 work (being given its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance here). An ode to Curtis, where Higdon once studied and now teaches, the first movement uses the 1726 in the school's Locust Street address as a point of departure. This is a piece of alternating extremes, intense expressivity and speed-demon virtuosity.
There's another, less explicit Curtis connection. Barber's Violin Concerto is not overtly referenced but strongly implied. Higdon's work (which won her a Pulitzer Prize) is at its best in places like the second-movement opening - a statement of great repose in the most sincere American mode. Again, Barber caught this same feeling exceptionally well, and operating at a certain medium level of accessibility came across in Higdon's Violin Concerto as a lovely compositional continuum.
Spano, too, attended Curtis, and though the other work on the program, Debussy's Iberia, was certainly solid and comfortable, it was an interpretation of no special insights. But special were principal oboist Richard Woodhams in his second-movement solos of great warmth, and first associate concertmaster Juliette Kang in the third. There are times when marketing ideas overtake artistic ones, but here - in Higdon's compositional style, Spano's workmanlike thinking, and Beilman's ability to marry brilliant technique with an ardor of meaning - artists and repertoire met happily.