Alsop and the Philadelphia Orchestra: Shostakovich in blinding clarity

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Jon Kimura Parker, Pianist.

Rebellion - cheerful, languid, or seething - was the underlying theme of Marin Alsop's guest-conducting engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra in ways that skirted some of the more inciting possibilities, but that arrived with blinding clarity in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. The added subtle twist Thursday at the Kimmel Center was how this Russian music turned a mirror back on American listeners.

Written to placate the über-populist Soviet authorities, the symphony displayed meticulous logic, suitable bombast, and common touches, but with many subversive undertones. Maybe because Alsop is a longtime American music specialist, she colored some of Shostakovich's leaner chords in ways that showed you how the Russian composer's vocabulary was (no doubt unintentionally) somewhat parallel to Aaron Copland's. The more comfortable Americana seemed rather less noble next to Shostakovich's use of a similar harmonic palette to characterize wounds that do not heal. It was yet another layer to this multilayered piece.

On all fronts, Alsop's reading was deeply personal and every bit as powerful as those by Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, who had some of their best Philadelphia moments with this symphony. From the beginning, Alsop didn't conduct the piece in the typically discrete paragraphs, but went for a long, continuous progression of tension in a performance full of effectively built peaks.

The Philadelphia string sound was heard in full, but was tapped as a source of force rather than sensuality. The brass asserted themselves in ways more characteristic of the Chicago Symphony. The second movement's suggestion of peasant dance cast a lugubrious shadow that took on the more menacing character of a death march. The third movement's pale string sound suggested an ocean of tears. The final movement didn't quite have the imaginative strokes heard previously. Still, Alsop clearly owns this symphony.

The first half had unconventional orchestrations of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun (in Arnold Schoenberg's chamber version) and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (in its original jazz-band guise). In Debussy, Schoenberg's main contribution was a piano in the ensemble that put the original's outdoor-scene painting in a more indoor frame. In Gershwin, the audience loved the rhapsody with the many stylish, personal phrases projected by pianist Jon Kimura Parker. But in both cases, the more distinctive quirks of these alternative orchestrations stayed under wraps.

The rhapsody had a sizable string contingent that smoothed down any jazz-band rowdiness. Though nobody airbrushed the music (including Ricardo Morales' clarinet solo), the audacious, even mocking character of the original Paul Whiteman recording was lost. In repeat performances, might she and the orchestra let it rip?

The program will be repeated Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

dstearns@phillynews.com