Although a well-established 20th-century masterwork, Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is a special-occasion piece in the United States - and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia is not a likely party to be creating the occasion. The piece is a tall order that would seem to require full orchestra.
You could have guessed conductor laureate Ignat Solzhenitsyn was behind Sunday's performance: He's the kind of serious musician who will take on something this formidable and get the rehearsal time to pull it off. His chamber music appearances here mean he's never away for long, but Solzhenitsyn emerges as a key part of the Chamber Orchestra's season, maintaining a classical foundation as music director Dirk Brosse explores populist realms.
With some of the group's usual players absent due to injury and other commitments, the performance had its rough edges. But, overall, it was the kind of experience the orchestra's advocates bring up when comparisons to the Philadelphia Orchestra arise. The close proximity offered by the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater made the music's contemplative sense of mystery inviting rather than opaque.
The lack of a string-heavy sonority better revealed the interplay among the orchestration's oddly matched instruments (timpani, harp, celesta) - in a work where the composer set aside the expansive public manner of his other orchestral works in lieu of the intricacies of his string quartets.
The piece can seem rather cerebral. But the first movement served notice this performance would be an exception. Some conductors begin so softly as to be barely audible. Not here. The movement's long-built climax, which can seem like a feat of compositional technique, became an existential crisis. Later movements had similarly imaginative strokes.
In the concert's second half, the tidy perfection and flawless gothicism of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3 ("Scottish") was Bartók's temperamental opposite, and a piece that nearly plays itself. Thanks to his work with the composer's early string symphonies, Solzhenitsyn found unguarded moments when Mendelssohn's public face slipped in transitional moments and accompanying figures that warrant closer attention. You heard flashes of the string tone he cultivated during his music directorship, but only flashes. Well, times change.