The principal oboe chair of The Philadelphia Orchestra sat unoccupied for nearly two years following Richard Woodhams’ retirement in 2018, and many in the local music community speculated on his replacement. An appointment finally came, early last year, that Philippe Tondre of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, would occupy the coveted perch. But as with everything in 2020, complications arose.

Philippe Tondre © Jeff Fusco
Philippe Tondre
© Jeff Fusco

Tondre missed several of the season’s early concerts due to coronavirus travel restrictions. He was ably spelled by longtime associate principal Peter Smith, leaving some – including this listener – to wonder if the orchestra should have just promoted from within. When Tondre finally did arrive stateside, he mostly blended into the fabric of the ensemble without much fanfare. His performance of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in the first digital concert of 2021 would thus serve as his formal, belated introduction to the audience, and give a sense of what we might expect for years to come. (Principal oboists tend to plant deep roots in Philly – he’s only the fourth in the orchestra’s 121-year history.)

The concert made for an auspicious debut. Tondre’s lean, bright tone complements the small ensembles that have become common during the pandemic, which sound fresher and more focused than the typically sprawling style associated with this orchestra. In the technically challenging first movement, he displayed flawless technical execution, seemingly inexhaustible breath control, while projecting a style in the cadenza that seemed almost improvisatory. His playing in the second movement was elegant and contemplative. His physical style throughout was kinetic; this is an artist who makes music with his whole body, not unlike conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose precise, detailed approach to Mozart seems better suited to these intimately scaled explorations.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Philippe Tondre and The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Philippe Tondre and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

Tondre is a natural soloist, but he also blends nicely into the fabric of the ensemble, as evidenced by the program’s other two entries. Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 in E minor, “Trauer” (Mourning), was shot through with tension – with a slashing string texture that seemed specifically calibrated to the unstable state of the world. The evening opened with the orchestra’s first performances of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, a brief work shot through with wit and vigor, and a touch of the cheeky style that Mozart would go on to perfect. The inclusion of this composer, a French-Black contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, speaks to the ongoing project of interrogating who has, and hasn’t, been included in the classical canon across the centuries. This charming piece suggests that when it comes to introductions, late is better than never.

This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream