Philadelphia Orchestra pleases laid-back Vail

VAIL, Colo. - It's different here.

Come concert time at the Philadelphia Orchestra's debut Saturday at Bravo! The Vail Valley Music Festival, the orchestra faced so many empty seats that box-office disaster was certain. Then, in the few minutes between concertmaster David Kim's entrance and music director Christoph Eschenbach's first bow, disaster turned into a sellout.

In the intensely sociable culture of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, you'll shake hands with more people than a politician running for office, and you'll only realize you're about to miss the performance at the sound of an insistent alarm bell you haven't heard since high school.

That was only the first in a series of it's-different-here moments in what was ultimately a successful opening to the orchestra's two-weekend residency here.

People bring their dogs to work in Vail; at least one roamed about backstage at the amphitheater. Starbucks customers write checks for their lattes.

By intermission, an oxygen-deprived Marisol Montalvo (elevation here is 8,150 feet) won lusty cheers after singing some of the most intricate arias Mozart wrote for the soprano voice.

Through it all, Eschenbach declared himself thrilled at his first Rocky Mountain visit. "I love it!" he told the audience. And at the party afterwards, he made it clear that he meant it, while festival executive director John W. Giovando welcomed the orchestra as "the world's most luxurious ensemble."

The orchestra's singular power seemed as apparent to those who dressed in cowboy casual and munched popcorn during Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique as it was to those who know the orchestra so well as to ask about now-departed principal violist Roberto Diaz. No doubt about it: Vail was wowed.

Fatigue figured into the performance in diverse ways. Berlioz was shipshape at the morning rehearsal, exuding Eschenbach's juxtaposition of French suaveness and hysteria appropriate to such fantastical music. By performance time, though, surprisingly frequent intonation problems had set in with the string players, and the orchestra's energy seemed less focused. Though exciting, the Philadelphia Fantastique wasn't at its best.

Montalvo started her Saturday with a 9 a.m. interview for cable TV, sang a full rehearsal, and admitted to being a masochist for choosing arias such as Mozart's "Abduction" from the Seraglio showpiece, "Martern aller Arten." But she surpassed herself in her high-wire performance that night, in music that gave her charming incidental duets with many of the orchestra's principal players. She delivered a particular vocal color for almost all of them.

When it came time to take her bows, she broke down and wept in relief. Understandably.

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David Patrick Stearns


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