Béatrice et Bénédict – Overture
Violin Concerto [New York premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Vadim Repin (violin)
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 1 March, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
One wonders whether Charles Dutoit already knew James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto, written in 2009, when he decided to preface it with the Overture to Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict”. Although at first sight an unrelated pairing, they share a connection to human relationships. Based on Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing”, this late Berlioz work is certainly one of his most delicate compositions. Dutoit and the orchestra performed it with a light touch, clarity of texture, and with sweetness of string sound as well as passionate involvement and brilliance when appropriate.
Written for Vadim Repin, MacMillan’s Violin Concerto is dedicated to the memory of his mother, who passed away in 2008. One was left to wonder what kind of a relationship he intended to commemorate. At the opening of the third movement, the orchestra musicians chant “eins, zwei, drei, vier, meine Mutter tanzt mit mir” (one, two, three, four, my mother is dancing with me). Is it a reference to a terpsichorean experience, or is he alluding to Mahler here, who wrote “der Teufel tanzt es mit mir” (the devil is dancing with me) into the score of the ‘Purgatorio’ movement of his Tenth Symphony? Another enigma occurs just before that finale’s fortissimo cadenza, when a disembodied amplified female voice asks, “fünf, sechs, sieben, bist du hinter das blaue Glas gegangen?” (five, six, seven, did you go behind the blue glass?). What is the significance of the blue glass, or of the quadruple martial chordal punctuations, of the squawks of muted trumpets interrupting a beautiful oboe solo at the start of the second movement, and of an extended nostalgic solo for piccolo? The concerto starts out as yet another piece with extended flourishes for the soloist, struggling mightily to be heard over skillful, if thick, scoring, but as it progresses it starts to turn, often comically, into a collage of idioms reminiscent of Bernstein, Copland, Korngold and Hollywood cartoon music. Except for a couple of lyrical passages in the middle movement, the violinist functions more as accompanist rather than as soloist, however mightily Repin tried to exert his dominance. It is a flashy orchestral piece, mostly tonal with liberal doses of colorful percussion writing. One never knows what bit of stylistic quotation will be thrown into the mix next.
Tchaikovsky 5 felt like a homecoming, a return to the familiar territory for which the “fabulous Philadelphians” are justly famous. Dutoit slightly emphasized some nuances in the dark opening, and he certainly heeded the composer’s Molto più tranquillo marking in the first movement, but he never lost sight of the overall structure. This is a work that lets orchestras shine. Solos were beautifully executed, by Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Jennifer Montone (horn), and Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), all with solid underpinning from Carol Jantsch (tuba) and Don Liuzzi (timpani). If there was one criticism it would be the lack of doubled woodwinds, as they tended to get absorbed by the large string section. There is no such thing as a piece which plays itself; Dutoit knows how to guide this Tchaikovsky symphony along with plenty of verve, but without exaggerations. One could just sit back and enjoy the ride.