Apollo – Ballet in Two Tableaux
Oedipus Rex – Opera-Oratorio in Two Acts after Sophocles
Oedipus – Paul Groves
Jocasta – Petra Lang
Creon / Messenger – Robert Gierlach
Tiresias – David Wilson-Johnson
Shepherd – Matthew Plenk
David Howey (narrator)
Men of The Philadelphia Singers Chorale
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 3 May, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first visit to New York City since its management filed for bankruptcy on April 16. As if this wasn’t dispiriting enough, the musicians faced empty seats at Carnegie Hall. Since the concert was part of a subscription series, the lack of audience interest can only be attributed to the choice of programming, a Stravinsky affair without any of his popular works.
For his ballet Apollo (Apollon musagète), written in 1928 and revised in 1947, Stravinsky scaled back the extravagant orchestration of its well-liked predecessors (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring), even beyond the smaller forces he had employed in Pulcinella, to a string orchestra only. Although he specifies 34 musicians, for this large auditorium a few desks of violins had been added. The Philadelphia Orchestra strings are justly famous for their sound. Charles Dutoit encouraged a performance which emphasized tonal beauty over incisiveness of attack or transparency of texture. The soloists, first and foremost concertmaster David Kim and cellist Hai-Yi Ni, are excellent chamber musicians; however, even their fine contributions failed to infuse the performance with rhythmic propulsion or neo-classical sparkle. It was beautiful, but somewhat flaccid.
In “Oedipus Rex”, drama is almost inevitable from the very beginning. David Howey immediately set the story; placed upstage among the orchestra he was generously amplified, tying together the various sections with his powerful oratory. The men of The Philadelphia Singers Chorale likewise functioned not only as the people of Thebes, but as a constant backdrop, a canvas against which the action was played out. They sang with all the dynamism and nuance one could hope for, and mastered the complexities of Stravinsky’s score with perfect intonation. In the title role, Paul Groves for the most part delivered an engrossing performance. There were a few strained notes, but the intensity and sensitivity of his portrayal of Oedipus more than made up for these slight shortcomings. Robert Gierlach had some trouble making himself heard as Creon in the beginning, but he fared better as the Messenger in the second Act. David Wilson-Johnson had no such difficulty, especially towards the end of Tiresias’s dramatic speech, while Matthew Plenk’s tight vibrato made him a less than ideal Shepherd. Petra Lang perhaps gave the most compelling character of all. Her ‘Nonn’ Erubescite, Reges’, easily projecting, was spine-chilling as well as touching.
Presiding over it all, Dutoit not only kept the momentum going, but he made the most of the work’s dramatic possibilities. Even without the aid of staging, this was a theatrical reading, which allowed the power of the music to express itself all the more. There were times one wished for a little more edge to the sound, more emphasis on Stravinsky’s dissonant writing. But then, this is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has one of the most opulent sounds around. We can only hope that it will continue as such.