Bruch’s First Violin Concerto remains a cornerstone of the repertory, but the composer’s Concerto in E minor for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra gets dusted off far less frequently. The Philadelphia Orchestra performed it for the first time in Colorado last summer, and they brought it to Verizon Hall this past weekend, with principals Ricardo Morales and Choong-Jin Chang assuming soloist duties. Principal Guest Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann admirably attempted to thread the needle between the work’s three disparate movements, but the performance didn’t leave the impression of a neglected masterpiece rediscovered.

Choong-Jin Chang and Ricardo Morales
© Jeff Fusco

Program notes suggested the influence of Scandinavian folk music, but the end result sounded more like a last gasp of high Romanticism. Nordic elements were not in evidence in the same way that one hears Jewish and Eastern European accents in the First Violin Concerto. Chang brought a warm, pillowy sound to the opening lines of the Andante con moto, which Morales complemented, and in the many passages where the two instruments play in tandem, they fused their voices elegantly without fully shedding their individual qualities. For her part, Stutzmann emphasized the brawny, almost Brahmsian character of the first movement, bringing excitement to some fairly standard orchestral writing. In each movement, she met the music where it lived – the second was doleful, the third energetic – but as a whole, it hung together loosely.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor is as familiar to the Philadelphia audience as the Bruch was foreign: we last heard it this past February. But Stutzmann specializes in putting a new gloss on the standard repertoire, and in her thrilling reading, it was impossible not to hear certain details as if for the first time. She drew out the ways the composer inflects the famous quotation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with the distinct musical character of his home country, perhaps representing the spirit of cultural exchange – or a desperate need to cling to the past as you forge ahead toward the future. The Largo was taken at a deliberate and daringly slow tempo that reminded the listener of what it is at its core: a funeral march. Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia performed the English horn solo with sophistication and grace.

Nathalie Stutzmann conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The powerful but painstakingly minute approach Stutzmann took in the first two movements gave way to a sense of abandon in the closing section: this was a crashing big orchestra sound that made use of the battalion of musicians onstage, with substitute players filling out the rows in nearly every section. This was not done at the expense of insight: for once, the interrupting Trio in the Scherzo sounded appropriately jarring. But it was exhilarating to hear the work brought home with some blood-and-guts bravado, especially since that was not all Stutzmann had to offer. Dvořák’s Ninth bridges the 19th and 20th centuries – and Europe and America – with its famous subtitle, “From a New World”. In her reading, Stutzmann discovered a new world of meaning.

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