In his date with the big fish, the title character in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea muses: “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?” Many a conductor has sketched the title character in Debussy’s La Mer mainly as a benign beauty, and there is plenty in the score to support that.
But from the opening moments of the piece Thursday night, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, age 80, turned the Philadelphia Orchestra’s gaze to a more varied and complex interpretation. The sea is not a gentle place; you do not step gingerly into it, Frühbeck argued, even in the first light of dawn. Maybe it takes a grown-up to sense the menace below the surface.
That the conductor did so without violence is remarkable. In an opening presentation, musicians of the orchestra noted that this was Frühbeck’s 150th appearance with the orchestra since his debut in 1969. One player called him “nice.” But nice is a useless trait in conductors.
The salient point is this: The venerable Spaniard stands with a precious handful — along with Simon Rattle, Vladimir Jurowski, and Charles Dutoit — who can rehearse the ensemble into a state of such polish and authority that it becomes a single, trenchant instrument. Contrary to contemporary myth, it’s not about how the conductor looks — it’s what happens in rehearsal that matters most.
Evidence was abundant. If you listened for tricky flashpoints, where one ending section overlapped with the beginning of the next, you heard the single-minded command of a pianist. In parts where two instruments doubled a melody, Frühbeck balanced and blended tone to create the specter of a third, mysterious instrument. One particular two-minute section of “Play of the Waves” mutated colors: a baleful cello melody, harps twinkling high, a resigned trumpet solo, then a flood of crashing sound. Each movement was a narrative, tautly told.
The meandering in Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole was the composer’s fault, not the conductor’s. Faultless, too, was violinist Augustin Hadelich, making his Philadelphia Orchestra debut. The Juilliard graduate with a fine, controlled sound was most convincing in introspective sections, where detailed phrasing and a constantly changing vibrato suggested layers deeper than this piece allows.
The sensuality in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé is built in, so rendering it requires no great skill. In the second suite from the ballet, Frühbeck once again found everything that wasn’t obvious. The climaxes tend to take care of themselves, he seemed to say — but here is a phrasing you never considered, and there the important voice usually overlooked. The piece emerged fresh.
Why, you wondered, had the conductor been allowed to reach his ninth decade without ever being made music director here? Inexplicably, this orchestra has grown old while Frühbeck became the one who got away.