In its periodic People’s Choice concert at the Mann Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra effectively outclassed Spotify, Amazon, and other music-streaming services Wednesday with a program that was a listener-selected playlist, but with sound and presence that eclipsed anything digital.
With votes fielded by WRTI-FM (90.1), the program conducted by Cristian Măcelaru was predictably unsurprising, mainly gateway pieces that aren’t heavy-lifting, but that open the door to more substantial works by the same composer. Sibelius’ Finlandia, Liszt’s Les Preludes, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Wagner’s Tannhauser overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio italien all reflected the strong personalities of the respective composers, but also had a sense of melody that can draw in listeners still finding their way into classical music, while also giving a taste of a harmonic world that makes melody a less-essential element.
Each piece gave ample reason for its people’s choice status. The emphatically patriotic Finlandia harnesses the power of cumulative repetition that somehow never lapses into redundancy. Though the Borodin dances are best known for the tune later adapted for the pop song “Stranger in Paradise,” the music draws its staying power from the complexity of its textures. At certain moments, five different things are going on at the same time, each strand worth hearing by itself, but all superimposed in ways that work with great effect.
Les Preludes is a slow seduction leading up to an Italianate melody that also takes on symphonic grandeur when it breaks apart into individual pieces that become symphonic building blocks in the piece’s larger structure. Wagner outdoes them all, veering between hymnlike solemnity and pagan bursts of sensuality, demonstrating the power of understatement with only a few instruments and simple harmonies, but then turning grand when the same ideas return with the force of full orchestra. Capriccio italien‘s counterpoint is emotional: The almost-corny Mediterranean exuberance has a Nordic undercurrent that’s never carefree.
The audience sometimes reacted as though the concert really were a streaming service, sometimes seeming to forget that applause was warranted by performances that maybe were’t the Philadelphia Orchestra’s best, but were certainly respectable by summer-concert standards. WRTI’s Kevin Gordon’s intros to each piece were so entertaining — his description of Finland’s 1899 political turmoil sounded like our own in 2017 — that the end of each piece felt like a closed chapter. Tchaikovsky, though, brought the audience to its feet. And the encore — which offered the audience the options of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Strauss’ Radetzky March — went for the march. We won’t analyze why.