Once dismissed for sounding like golden-age-of-Hollywood movie music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto is now beloved for exactly that reason. And although the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor-in-residence Cristian Măcelaru gave the piece maximum shimmer Thursday at the Kimmel Center, guest violinist Renaud Capuçon had an unusually persistent shade to contend with: Not Errol Flynn or Bette Davis (who starred in the films whose scores were the basis of the concerto), but Jascha Heifetz, the violinist who premiered the 1947 concerto.
Korngold and Heifetz were emigres who reordered the American musical landscape: The Viennese Korngold brought his trademark harmonic saturation to cinematic swashbucklers (winning on Oscar in 1939), and the Russian Heifetz set violinistic standards that maybe have been matched, but never surpassed. The two came to the Violin Concerto from opposite directions: Korngold was returning to the classical forms he was brought up with, and Heifetz was broadening his popularity beyond Carnegie Hall.
Yet those gorgeously histrionic Korngold melodies that showed off Heifetz's luster were played by Capuçon (one of the A-plus violinists of his generation) with a more Brahmsian sensibility, chiseling down to the music's message with more rugged phrase shaping rather than the pure sound that Heifetz brought to the piece.
Without that extra ounce of succulence (and air of seduction), Capuçon sought detailed shading in music that's perhaps best heard when seamlessly picturesque. Probe this concerto for subtext, and see if anybody really cares. But let's never take a violinist of Capuçon's calibre for granted. This was a significant performance.
Măcelaru stepped in for the canceled Tugan Sokhiev, gamely conducting Liadov's witty, sonorous but rarely heard tone poem Kikimora and leading Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 with fitful brilliance.
Măcelaru has a poet's ear for shaping the phrases like ocean waves in the symphony's moments of emotional overdrive. But the music's ricochet effects were more careful than spontaneous. Rhythmically, he cut ideas short before they could fully complete themselves. The orchestra's hallmark with Russian music is realizing the rhetoric with more color than brute force, though this performance had a balance of both.
The biggest musical challenge of the evening followed Tchaikovsky. What can possibly make sense after that symphony's dizzying escalation of triumph? It is its own encore, and I don't want to listen to anything for an hour afterward.
But after a 15-minute stage reorganization, the first in what promises to be a series of organ postlude concerts was played by Peter Richard Conte, who is usually heard with the famous Wanamaker organ at Macy's, but who stood to give a clearer account of his artistry outside of the department store's congested acoustics.
Roughly 700 people stayed. But Bach's lightweight Organ Concerto in G Major (for solo organ) is just one case of a piece that would make a stronger impression almost anywhere but in this post-Tchaikovskian circumstance. Best to consider this a trial run in a situation that warrants exceptional finesse.
The program is to be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.