Karita Mattila at Philadelphia Orchestra

Here is an early version of a review running in the newsprint edition of tomorrow's Inquirer.

Richard Strauss penned dozens of orchestral songs, but somehow the Philadelphia Orchestra keeps coming back to that dearly held group known as the Four Last Songs. Most recently, the big gust of Alessandra Marc and the honest, unclotted voices of Barbara Hendricks and Pamela Coburn have taken on these autumnal, tenderly transcendent settings of poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff.
The much-heralded Finnish soprano Karita Mattila (pictured) made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut with the Four Last Songs Thursday night - the concert is repeated Friday and Saturday - and hers was an interpretation not likely to please everyone. Mattila has a gorgeous sound. It’s the kind of creamy saturation that immediately pleases the ear. She has no troubles with presence, even in music that owes much of its sense of self to the orchestra. And for a while, that was enough. But as she worked her way through Hesse’s glistening spring, waning summer, a soul freed for a night’s journey and Eichendorff’s unexpected rendering of death as peace, you started to listen for the singer to knit the music to meaning, and there wasn’t much to be found. Her sound didn’t change color to emphasize a thought or add emotional complexity. It was hard to make out her words. Even the opening phrase of the third song, the one that starts quite clearly with “Nun der Tag…” could be barely discerned.
It wasn’t so much that Mattila was cool – a tag some critics have attached to her, and only sometimes pejoratively – it’s that her presentation seemed to say her sonic value was all this piece needed, and for many, I’m sure that was enough. For me, that’s only half the power of lieder.
On the podium, to the surprise of some listeners, was not Jiří Bělohlávek, who called in sick, but Juanjo Mena. Without Bělohlávek, out went the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first performance of Martinu’s Symphony No. 3. It’s a pity, and even more so since novelty, already scarce this season, was a casualty earlier when the orchestra canceled its first outing with Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 and put Schubert’s “Unfinished” in its stead. Martinu’s Third was replaced by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in a performance that, though able, hardly justified itself as any kind of special interpretive statement. It was rather slow – studied and restrained – which at least cleared the floor in spots to once again marvel at principal oboist Richard Woodhams, whose sound and personality are more alive than ever. Listeners should savor this moment in the orchestra’s personnel evolution. Here’s a musician whose unfettered facility always animates a phrase with meaning. Not a note goes by that isn’t exploited for its greatest possible urgency. It’s subtle stuff, but it’s the thing that crosses the line from craft into art, and it’s rare.
Similarly high concepts were abundant in the “Adagio” from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Interpretively, Mena’s vision was more interested in being generally matter-of-fact than in shining a light into any dark corners. That dissonant chord at the climax is probably the closest any human will ever come to hearing a cosmic primal scream, a tough concept for an ensemble that considers pretty sounds always to be the final destination. Still, there’s plenty of pretty called for in Mahler’s score, and the orchestra, individually and collectively, knew just what to do.

- Peter Dobrin