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Philadelphia Orchestra finds its groove in Wynton Marsalis concerto

Wynton Marsalis' "Violin Concerto in D Major," receiving its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance, comes with a lot of bells and whistles (literally and figuratively). Violinist Nicola Benedetti was an ideal soloist.

Wynton Marsalis’ “Violin Concerto in D Major” had its Philadelphia premiere Thursday.
Wynton Marsalis’ “Violin Concerto in D Major” had its Philadelphia premiere Thursday.Read more(Frank Stewart)

Thursday night, in the middle of Nicola Benedetti's playing a cadenza in a violin concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a man walked through the ensemble to a spot just inches from the violinist and started playing drums.

The man was percussionist Christopher Deviney, and, needless to say, the concerto was not the Brahms, Beethoven, or Sibelius.

Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto in D Major, receiving its first Philadelphia Orchestra performance with these concerts, comes with a lot of bells and whistles (literally and figuratively), like orchestra musicians stomping their feet and clapping.

Superficially, at least, it had something in common with the one other work on a program led by conductor Cristian Macelaru. Both the Marsalis and Holst's The Planets end dramatically, with the music fading away on a repeated pattern into nothingness.

The Planets is welcome on any program. With its unseen voices — here offstage women from the Westminster Symphonic Choir — and organ rumble so low it seems like cosmic wind, the ending never fails to leave us off at what feels like the beginning of some Great Beyond. Macelaru's way with "Mars, the Bringer of War" could hardly have been more bellicose — though the hard-edged ensemble sound often carried into other movements, where it was less in character with the piece.

If Holst brought us an expansive view of the planets, Marsalis brought us nose to nose with the one we inhabit. Four movements long, his concerto speaks in easy tones, guiding us through familiar American vernacular sounds. It fishes in some of the same waters as Gershwin and Copland (specifically calling on the same sounds Copland did in the party scene in the opera The Tender Land).

Benedetti negotiated the stream of variegated material with great sensitivity to style. The music saunters and dances. A punchy circus-like atmosphere takes over for a bit, commented upon with short quips from the violin. The Blues hovers over the piece in various places.

The orchestrations are some of the loveliest you'll ever hear — and most inventive. A burlesque section has the violin soloist twisting and teasing. Brass blasts call out, and a couple of trumpets "shout" by blocking and unblocking their bells with cups.

The debauchery doesn't last. Strings come in and the mood turns sincere. In the end, Marsalis emerges as a musical raconteur of the best sort. Nothing he told us was exactly new, but there was great art in the telling.

Additional performance at 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$147., 215-893-1999.