Even if you remember nothing else of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, you leave the hall with the great, noble theme of the first movement taking up permanent residence in your consciousness.
The theme is an emotional anthem, but a ghostly one — almost a remembrance of better days. It’s also a red herring. This is a symphony with a main theme anyone can hum, and yet a work of such cunning sophistication that no one has been able to firmly establish keys for long stretches of the symphony. Elgar — toying with the idea of the dissolution of tonality, but on his own terms — speaks on many levels.
So does Andrew Davis, 66, the sporadic caretaker of this orchestra since 1975, who led the piece Thursday night at the Kimmel Center. The English-born Chicago maestro gets a pleasantly plump sound from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but is careful about balancing important voices. He’s not a big taker of chances, but, as an opera conductor (who shares a conducting teacher with Riccardo Muti), he is often there with some wonderful emotional highs. When that great theme reasserts itself at the end of the piece it’s no longer pensive and merely stately, but set off against fireworks. Davis paced its arrival point beautifully.
This orchestra accesses Elgar by way of Wagner and Strauss, and was comfortable enough under Davis in the middle two movements to achieve some remarkably emotional moments. Solos were short but trenchant, filled with individuality but deftly emerging from the ensemble: hornist Jeffrey Lang, oboist Peter Smith, English hornist Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, and a hushed-as-“Nimrod” string section.
Davis pared down the orchestra for two works of Mozart, and yet the orchestra sounded no less assured for the exposure of individual instruments. The Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621, was a crisp burst of energy.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218 doesn’t offer the composer’s greatest obvious potential for interpretive depth, but with Boston-born Stefan Jackiw, 24, the piece seemed to grow. Passages lurking with etude-like tedium were brought to life when the violinist endowed a single note in the series with his unusually deep tone. His first-movement cadenza was the kind of triumph of personality you wanted to cheer, not so much for its heroism as a sound so saturated and vibrant it sounded like a living thing. For the close doublings between Jackiw and oboist Smith you could thank the small size of the ensemble, but also Davis, who consistently laid down an orchestral part transparent enough for the soloist to thrive.
- Peter Dobrin