I never know whether to laugh or scream when someone tells me that it was obviously a great concert because the musicians looked so happy.
No one on stage looked particularly cheerful Friday afternoon after Paul Goodwin led Beethoven's Overture, "The Consecration of the House" with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Some of the musicians, in fact, looked downright put out. And yet, so terrific was Goodwin's sweep and detailing in the piece that it was a revelation.
Musicians are sometimes the last to know how they sound. This is hard to remember now that musical leaders (and funders) want visible evidence of audience and music making contact. It might have been hard work for the musicians that Goodwin put them outside of their comfort zone for two hours of Beethoven, Mozart and Stamitz.
But what a payoff.
The revelation piled up in the Beethoven, starting with a brisk opening that was a noble march rather than a bog. Goodwin is known for his historically informed performance practices, and while there are limits to what he can do with modern equipment like Philadelphia's, he did plenty. Clearing textures by carefully managing balances, limiting string vibrato selectively, and heeding exact note lengths let an ensemble sound bloom that is rare to hear in Verizon Hall.
As if clearing a thicket, Goodwin found what others miss in this overture. It's a hodgepodge, yes - but an expert one. It moves from antique references, to the repose of the Ninth Symphony, to the euphoria of Fidelio, all disparate identities beautifully synthesized here by a sharp ear.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 was substantially remade, too, and you had the feeling that he could have gone further with more rehearsal time. Still, the hand-offs of material from one instrument to another in the first movement had the seamless ease of a pianist. The way Goodwin slowed the last three notes of the third movement made great emotional sense, and the quicksilver elegance of the fourth made you think of the Symphony No. 6 (being composed around the same time).
Distinctive without being quirky, Goodwin brought an even leaner sound to an orchestra of just over 40 players in the Mozart Symphony in D Major, K. 320, after the Posthorn Serenade.
Next to such high quality, Carl Stamitz's Viola Concerto in D Major, Op. 1 didn't fare well. Choong-Jin Chang, the orchestra's principal violist, was a competent soloist, but he did nothing to transcend its rote, etude-like passages or limited harmonic interest. Even with an ensemble slimmed to about 30 musicians, charisma was in short supply.