It's OK to show up at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert this season and feel conflicted that big plans never materialized. The Stravinsky Soldier's Tale in a staged version by James Alexander, announced for the current run of concerts, was a victim of this season's budget cuts, and so the program was reworked without actors and dancers.
The orchestra's current leadership feels that visuals are a good way to lure more listeners to the sound. Maybe. And though the orchestra has staged The Soldier's Tale before - in an elegant 2006 family-concert production by director Susan Fenichell - it was tantalizing to consider what Alexander (who has staged the St. Matthew Passion here) might have come up with.
But Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was on the program all along, with no visual enhancements, and Thursday night the piece was once again so powerful it proved that all any great program needs is - surprise - great music.
Historically, the orchestra has certain ownership rights to the piece, having given the U.S. premiere of both the concert and staged versions. But when you're an orchestra, history doesn't amount to a hill of beans without the kind of performance the orchestra came up with Thursday with conductor Cristian Macelaru. He imposed no exaggeration of already jagged edges, or phrasing eccentricities. Macelaru fell back on a generally rounded ensemble sound, and the strength of many solo players.
Is there a more treacherous piece in the repertoire? It's less the technical challenges than the fact that musicians are handling an icon. Bar after bar of music rolls forth widely known as the sound of a century. And player after player produced very fine solo work: Loren Lind in realms for alto flute luridly silken; hornist Jennifer Montone in particularly athletic form; a focused Daniel Matsukawa in that opening solo that makes the newbie strain to see which instrument could possibly be buzzing that eerily.
Instead of The Soldier's Tale, the orchestra and Macelaru performed a sometimes heavy rendering of the Prokofiev Symphony No. 1, the "Classical," and Ginastera's Variaciones concertantes, which, like The Rite of Spring, puts much of its material into the hands of solo players (in fact, the very definition of "concertante"). Cellist John Koen and harpist Elizabeth Hainen formed a sturdy opening duet, and it was a great pleasure to catch a rare solo passage from a double bassist as nimble as Harold Robinson.
A lot of conductors have taken up the practice during applause of asking individuals and sections to stand to accept praise. It's nice to have one who programmed an evening of works that prized the individual in the act of actually making music.
Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $10-$140. philorch.org or 215-893-1999.