Simon Rattle brings Philadelphia Orchestra back after strike

Sir Simon Rattle rehearsing at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010.

What a strange miracle it is to watch within the span of less than a week a serious stumble by the Philadelphia Orchestra – and then hear the ensemble in one of the most trenchant artistic encounters it has had in some time.

Silence would have been the orchestra’s self-destructive condition Thursday night if last weekend’s strike had not been settled quickly. A labor truce reached, English conductor Simon Rattle was able to bring tragedy of the sort we want to Verizon Hall with a single work, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (sometimes called the “Tragic”). Thursday’s performance was the only one in Philadelphia, with a repeat Monday night at Carnegie Hall that can now, happily, go on.

This is a sophisticated Mahler 6 tailored to the orchestra’s special qualities. Without a score before him in performance, Rattle had obviously worked to focus the orchestra on both sound production in certain stretches, and on dynamics, subtleties of articulation, and other small details. Some conductors – Solti, notably – have heard this piece as wrought from two opposing forces: bellicose and sweet, villains and heroes, or good and evil.

Life is not so simple, Rattle argued, sometimes shaping the music in a way that made you unsure of the emotional intent. Irony lurked between the notes.

There were no sharp edges in the first movement, no war, but an intense, rolling legato of rich orchestral color. Rattle stopped off for interior moments of relaxation, or jumped off suddenly at the introduction of a new idea. And yet he was often careful not to micromanage phrasing, which helped make for a great night of solos from clarinetist Ricardo Morales, oboist Richard Woodhams, hornist Jeffrey Lang, and other winds.

Mahler may have left no specific programmatic explanation for this symphony, but I will long ponder the meaning of the “Scherzo” for the sharp-hewn character sketches Rattle suggested – an underworld of witches and buffoons. The great hammer strokes of the last movement, lowered by percussionist Christopher Deviney, were calibrated beautifully – the timing, as well as a sound of more awe than edge.

Rattle placed the “Andante” movement second (some conductors put the “Scherzo” second), and there was little sweet about it. It was tender, but painfully so – urgent rather than rapturous. Rattle loves to show how quiet an orchestra can be, and it was a great demonstration of control that in one particular section players could whisper while projecting just a scrim of presence.

During the six- or seven-minute ovation, Rattle walked into the ensemble to recognize individual players – an apt touch in a week of doubt:

The modesty should not obscure the fact, however, that few conductors arriving this particular week could have refocused the ensemble so squarely on the music. Rattle came back, and so too now is our orchestra.