Heroes don't always resurrect easily.
But there they were, Philadelphia icons Leopold Stokowski and Albert C. Barnes, dramatized by actors on the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall stage in the Philadelphia Orchestra's Barnes/Stokowski Festival, and you couldn't help encountering them warily.
Writing dialogue that conforms with their popular legends but that also offers an element of surprise is tough, and is partly what made the Broadway show Hamilton such an artistic success. But while the Friday afternoon program of Milhaud, Poulenc, and Stravinsky was provocative musically, the dramatic interludes before and between pieces were only intermittently engaging.
Playwright Didi Balle stuck mostly to an epistolary format with Barnes (David Bardeen), his Paris art dealer (Paul Schoeffler), and Stokowski (Nicholas Carriere) exchanging letters regarding their respective forays into Paris at its early-20th-century artistic peak.
The letters gave you an authentic sense of voices and personalities at work, plus valuable insights about why, when, and how Barnes and Stokowski brought the best of Paris to Philadelphia — at a time when few people here appreciated all that was going on there. Of course, anybody playing Stokowski, with his self-created public persona, has his hands full, but Carriere projected the conductor's layers of pretension with engaging poise.
However, I take huge exception to the Stokowski character's flowery explication of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The music is about prehistoric Russia in no uncertain terms. It's not looking backward through a soft-focus lens. The seeds of many 20th-century ills are in Stravinsky's 1913 score that asks us to own the notion that our ancestors were nasty and peculiar.
Musically, principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève seemed game for the concert's extra level of elaboration, but he gave performances that probed well beyond the musical surfaces.
Milhaud's jazz/symphonic fusion in the ballet The Creation of the World has never seemed convincing to me — jazz elements seem ghostly and half-remembered — but Denève didn't ask you to buy it on that level. Generations of French composers have attempted to portray elemental matters in music, and if Milhaud's isn't the most distinguished, Denève at least gave jazz incursions an emotional underpinning of melancholy and languor.
In both The Rite of Spring and Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani, Denève resisted the temptation to deliver powerhouse performances that thrill audiences but that don't tell you much about the music. In fact, he and organist Peter Richard Conte were particularly restrained in the Poulenc, revealing a range of nuance and color in the organ, set off by a lean, dry sound in the strings.
The Rite of Spring had the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal players in fine form, even if the overall performance didn't have as much individual personality as many heard in this hall.
The concert made good use of dual video screens hanging over the Verizon Hall stage. Occasional paintings were seen illustrate what was being discussed, and during the Poulenc concerto, one saw Conte's feet on the pedals and hands on the keyboards. However, the individual sections of The Rite of Spring could've been enumerated and were not. A missed opportunity.