Philadelphia Orchestra in Asia: Cracking the Egg


BEIJING – The Charles Dutoit Walk of Fame – as it has been informally dubbed by Philadelphia Orchestra members – engulfs audiences as they enter the National Centre for the Performing Arts (which, due to its exterior's shape, is known as The Egg). The maestro’s likeness is seen on a series of a dozen or so vertical banners, all different poses but mostly from this autumnal period in his career, lining both sides of the rather long entry hall in this endlessly massive building. As if more evidence were needed of his exalted status in the Far East, the maestro was asked on Tuesday to undergo The Egg’s version of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre ritual: His handprints were preserved in clay for later display in the performing arts center’s museum. Move over Marilyn.
Ovations were long, loud and deserved at Tuesday evening’s concert – this time the Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff/Ravel program, one that occasionally overpowered the brighter-than-bright acoustics of The Egg. No rosy haze to the sound here, even though the acoustical canopy over the stage has a combination of diffused lighting and layers of Plexiglas that give the impression of patchy fog hovering over the stage. Also, the usual physical and psychological division between musicians and audiences is absent. Seats are not only positioned on all sides of the stage, but many of them are eye-level with the musicians, and during the concert, lighting levels are kept high. We’re all in it together.
At this point in the tour, the Philadelphia Orchestra needs no place to hide. The level of playing is optimum. The passion factor in works like Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Ravel’s La Valse is rising. Dutoit’s suaveness in concert is deceptive: In rehearsals shortly before curtain, his temperament borders on demonic in ways that impact the performance to come.
Violin soloist Arabella Steinbacher bounced back from the bad acoustics in Seoul and enjoyed a triumph in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Though it still might not be her piece, she came to terms with the concerto Tuesday in her own way, unlocking the music’s drama through a kind of rhythmic precision that gave every musical idea an almost determinedly circumscribed space within the music’s architecture. It’s a compellingly Germanic approach, with expressive points made with articulation and phrasing more than color. Whether or not it’s a complete interpretation, her performance was meticulously conceived in ways you can rarely count on in a piece that’s heard this often.

- David Patrick Stearns