Since it first performed Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major in 1962, the Philadelphia Orchestra has looked only within its own ranks for a soloist. So it made sense for the piece to serve as a formal introduction to Philippe Tondre, the Orchestra’s new-ish principal oboe, who is only the eighth musician to hold that chair in the organization’s 121-year history. Tondre previously performed the work earlier this year in a digital concert conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; here, the directorship fell to the well-regarded Finn Susanna Mälkki. It was instructive to hear how Tondre responded to two vastly different interpretations in a short span of time.

Philippe Tondre and Susanna Mälkki
© Margo Reed

Nézet-Séguin led an ebullient, footloose reading that employed the orchestra’s famously lush dynamics, which they can harness with ease even in small ensembles. In contrast, Mälkki drew a leaner sound, likely influenced by historically informed practices. This was spiky Mozart, with crisp strings, minimal blending and an almost adversarial relationship between soloist and corps. Tondre adapted to his conductor’s vision, thinning out the mahogany-colored timbre he often displays when playing orchestral solos in favor of a willowy tone that seemed to levitate above the music. Employing his own cadenzas in the first and third movements, he toyed impishly with the melodic line, drawing attention to the full range of his instrument. He played the aria-like Adagio non troppo with pure beauty and grace. My only complaint is that he often looked awkward and even embarrassed when he wasn’t playing, as if he didn’t know where to fix his attention. The spotlight will be on him quite a bit in the future, so he’d better get used to it. 

Mälkki followed the Mozart with a lively traversal of the Pulcinella Suite. Skilled in new music, she highlighted the myriad ways Stravinsky subverts Pergolesi’s antiquated melodies. The interplay between brass and low strings emerged with particularly rich humor that was also shot through with a foreboding intensity. Returned to the woodwinds section after his moment in the spotlight, Tondre handled the oboe writing in the Serenata with elegance. David Kim, Kimberly Fisher, Choong-Jin Chang and Hai-Ye Ni made up the sterling string quartet at the work’s center.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Margo Reed

The program’s wild card was Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead, a contemporary riff on the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto. Flutists Jeffrey Khaner and Olivia Staton stood in for Bach’s recorders, producing a silvery tone where one might have expected something reedier and more hard-edged. Agitated glissandi erupted from the strings in the first movement, with concertmaster Kim frequently mimicking and distorting the larger melodic line. The second movement, called Moon Ache, was contemplative and lovely. Wagner doubled the familiar harpsichord with an ethereal, mysterious celesta. 

Mälkki did a fine job throughout the 15-minute piece connecting Wagner’s ideas back to their referents. Certainly no one could miss her tongue-in-cheek spelling of Bach’s name in the concluding pitches!