Perfection is an admirable goal but not the best possible friend to the Mendelssohn
, which had the star spot - thanks to superstar violinist Joshua Bell - in the Philadelphia Orchestra's opening subscription concert Friday afternoon at nearly full Verizon Hall.
The concerto's impeccable sense of through line has each idea flowing out of the last, almost as a series of inevitabilities rather than a succession of events. Surprise is hard to come by. Where Mozart created musical worlds complete unto themselves - worlds with endlessly unfolding perspective - Mendelssohn can seem emotionally circumscribed with a balance of form and content that inhibits the latter. Few pieces are in such constant danger of lapsing into autopilot as this one.
Though violinist Bell sometimes retains a bit of Midwestern reserve that keeps him from giving himself over to Mendelssohn's ultra-lyrical second movement, a musician of his charisma isn't likely to lapse into routine. But elsewhere in the concert, he was armed with a tangible piece of anti-autopilot insurance: A first-movement cadenza that he wrote itself.
Though Brahmsian in its heft and density, the cadenza could have seemed like an out-of-period anachronism. Instead, it flung the door open to the next generation of music-making that Mendelssohn ever-so-discreetly points toward. This much-needed jolt was underscored by Bell's most impassioned playing of the program. Why stop at writing a cadenza? Why not an entire concerto? (I'm serious.)
Meanwhile, the orchestra is going out of its way to keep chief conductor Charles Dutoit from feeling unappreciated after passing him over, again, for the music directorship. Concertmaster David Kim began the concert with a particularly eloquent tribute commemorating the 30th anniversary of Dutoit's Philadelphia Orchestra debut.
But what spoke more eloquently on the maestro's behalf was the way the tricky entrances in Berlioz's Le Corsaire Overture came off so brilliantly. And the opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, whose hard-to-tune violin harmonics have driven the best orchestras into rehearsal overtime but on Friday seemed to materialize out of thin air with little apparent effort.
From there, Dutoit knew when to stay out of the symphony's way and keep it from lapsing into heavy-handed descriptiveness in the peasant-ish dance rhythms of the second movement. (One of the composer's most frequently used performance directions is "nicht schleppen" - don't drag.) Shrewdly, Dutoit gave returning thematic material a special punch. The third movement's ghostly atmosphere full of vaguely echoing nursery rhymes enjoyed particularly piercing incidental solos from the orchestra's principal players. The collage-like thematic reprises of the final movement took on a kind of linear logic I've never heard in my many encounters with the piece. But is it wrong to want a little more agony? This is Mahler, after all. If there's one thing I miss about Christoph Eschenbach, it's his lack of comfort zone. Others clearly like their comfort: The audience expressed high-decibel approval.