Stéphane Denève, principal guest conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, was at the podium tonight to bring us a rich program, spanning Richard Strauss at his Romantic best to postmodern Guillaume Connesson by way of Prokofiev and Ravel.

Stéphane Denève © Uwe Ditz
Stéphane Denève
© Uwe Ditz

Connesson’s Flammenschrift (completed in 2012 and receiving its first Philadelphia performance tonight) is a musical portrait of Beethoven. Flammenschrift means “flame writing” (a quote from Goethe). It is an act of homage, even, but a homage that includes all that was difficult and combustible about the man: “a man of great anger” in Connesson’s words, “yet sanctified by genius.” In the hands of The Philadelphia Orchestra, the spirited rhythms and propulsive energies, along with the larger-than-life impetuosity, were effectively communicated from the opening. Passion and unpredictability were obvious hallmarks: even the more subdued section was underwritten by nervy short-bowing in the strings. The ending, which came all of a sudden – a sort of collapse under the weight of sound – was in its own way unpredictable, catching us, in the Beethoven manner, quite off guard.

Vadim Repin stood in for Hilary Hahn to play Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 (1917). An unassumingly sweet and guileless tone emerged from his 1733 “Rode” Stradivarius violin, and an elegant reflection on the Andantino, although not one that throbbed with emotion. There were some technical glitches, it is true, which exposed raw edges in the performance, and detracted from the overall sense of ease. Although refined in the sourly lyrical passages, he could surely have entered into those bitter-sweet spaces much more deeply, wrung more meaning out of their very spareness. By the end of the last movement Moderato, he was, I thought, hitting his stride more, sharing the passion of long sustained notes with the orchestra.

Richard Strauss conducted The Philadelphia Orchestra for his Death and Transfiguration (1889) in March 1904, so the work has a distinguished history in the city. As a piece mapping music onto the process of dying and the memories, regrets and ideals that fill the liminal space between now and the hereafter, it showed for the first time how a tone poem could be a fine vehicle for a deep psychological narrative. Particular strengths of tonight’s performance were the wavering, hesitant opening lines – so indicative of the powerlessness of dying, and then the stirrings of the imagination, as the past rises up, in its various guises (different instrument combinations and snatches of melodies). Denève’s feeling for contrast and the colours of emotion was real. There was no mistaking the whimper of the woodwind or the percussive crash of death or indeed the final achievement of transcendence. Still, it was a disappointment that Denève did not hold the orchestra in that final note (and the after-after-reverberations of the note) for a fraction longer than he did. 

Ravel’s La Valse (1920) is one of those works which most everybody – myself included – insist on reading more into than the composer himself ever intended. An “apotheosis of the Viennese waltz”, he declared. “Which doesn’t have any symbolic meaning [as] a dance of death or a struggle between life and death.” But 1919 was the death of Vienna as a great imperial capital, and one can’t help feeling that this is a very apocalyptic apotheosis indeed. Things are constantly thrown out of shape – rhythms, melodies, harmonies – and the orchestra got better and better at representing this dysfunctional haute-bourgeois wilderness, from the nonchalantly tipsy to the really very wild indeed. Denève’s romantic style seemed very much to suit the piece, and his unruly curly mop, used to effect, just added to the whirlwind.