Though in a bit over its head, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia claimed its place in the classical music ecosystem more effectively than usual Sunday at the Kimmel Center, in a program that spotlighted clarinetist Ricardo Morales in the standard-repertoire Mozart Clarinet Concerto, but that daringly made the never-heard Malcolm Arnold Symphony for Strings the second-half centerpiece.
Music director Dirk Brosse assembled this intelligent program with guest Bassem Akiki, who canceled due to visa problems and was replaced by the up-and-coming Kynan Johns. Stepping into a concert this singular can't have been easy. Each half was similarly constructed, both starting with composers who momentarily narrowed their focus to meet the creative requirement at hand. Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" paved the way to the more-substantial Mozart concerto; Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No.3 set the stage for the Arnold symphony.
Heard in a sociological context, the second half has Respighi retreating from the present (1932) into a mythical past (lute songs from the late Renaissance and early Baroque) -- just as fascist Italy was reclaiming its Roman past in all of its imperialist sense of entitlement. Like a World War II bookend, Arnold's symphony dates from 1946, with a distinctly 20th-century way of juxtaposing sharply conflicting elements simultaneously. The slow movement in particular is like a geological cross section of inner disturbances that are unable to reach any resolution.
Kinship between the two composers is apparent in the string writing, but Respighi, for all of his orchestral mastery, was outclassed by Arnold's more penetrating, personal content. Though my past encounters with the symphony suggested it's one of the spikier descendants of William Walton, Johns heard it more through the lens of Bartok's Music for String, Percussion and Celesta. Arnold tends to be compulsively rhythmic here, making the piece particularly challenging because there's no hiding lack of synchronization. The performance was together enough to give a sense of what the symphony could be were the orchestra to revisit it in future seasons. I hope that happens. Meanwhile, one applauded the effort.
The Gluck piece hails from the mythical setting of his Orfeo ed Euridice opera, which put the Mozart concerto in an otherworldly light, especially when heard with the characteristic gentility one hears from Morales, the Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist. His seemless phrasing and unforced tone always draw in the ear rather than reach out to it. Particularly in the slow movement, you were prompted to take Mozart more on his own terms, which is not the real world of The Marriage of Figaro, but a place of inner quietude with its own rules that are all the more palpable in the more intimate environs of the Perelman Theater.