No introductory explanation was given and none was needed for part two of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s British Isles Festival. The program on Thursday was all musical postcards from Scotland — modern, antiquated, elemental, urban — and any words would have limited the kind of imagination listeners can bring to the piece.
The danger of the graphic musical descriptions of Scottish life in the pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies, Max Bruch, and Felix Mendelssohn is that the listener will recognize what the piece is doing on the surface and stop there. But when heard and not discussed, you realize how well they hold up in purely musical terms, even amid theatrical flourishes such as bagpiper Timothy Linahan from the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums making a cameo appearance.
The concert started with An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise that Maxwell Davies (who lived on the Orkney Islands) wrote in the mid-1980s as a crowd-pleasing break from his more typical works of dizzying complexity that explore the dark extremes of human behavior. What we hear is Scots making all kinds of merry in what sounds like anything but a civilized, destination wedding — all outlined in the composer’s cinematic scenario.
Ignoring that, the piece is like a miniature lightweight symphony offering a cross-section of local music, including some opening melodies that sound intriguingly pre-Celtic. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin resisted any broad comedy in the woozier sections, giving the music the kind of attention you’d expect from a Richard Strauss tone poem performance. Though Maxwell Davies’ other pieces often leave me struggling to understand why one event follows another, this performance revealed the piece’s inner logic. The music doesn’t make you work very hard, so it’s easy not to take it seriously. But next to some of the composer’s later light works, such as Mavis in Las Vegas, you appreciate how much this Orkney piece has cultural authority and how powerful that can be.
Authority is in short supply in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a violin concerto in all but name that’s based on Scottish folk songs and sounds twee at best, cheap at worst. I’d even venture to say that the folk music, particularly in the final movement, stymied the composer’s creativity. At least that’s the impression I’ve had from performances by high-personality star violinists. But the orchestra’s first associate concertmaster, Juliette Kang, didn’t try to make the piece sound more imposing than it is, and did so with a rock-solid technique and beautiful tone that consistently projected sincere emotionalism. She made the piece real. I didn’t know that was possible.
Her encore, a movement of Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Violin Solo Op. 31 No. 2, was even more poetically played.
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) was an inevitable choice for this program, especially as Nézet-Séguin recently recorded the complete Mendelssohn symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Those lean, swift performances confirmed his profile as an impassioned objectivist. Nézet-Séguin clearly scrutinized the music with the kind of what’s-really-there questing that’s often heard from early music figures such as John Eliot Gardiner but with results that seem more liberating than limiting.
Though the composer’s super-calculated perfectionism perhaps keeps this music from being core repertoire for Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra performance on Thursday was conceptually solid. As with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, thematic development took precedence over the Scottish-inflected tunes. Also, the symphony’s high point is the fourth-movement coda, when the composer tears off his Scottish mask and reveals himself with the kind of swagger not often heard from his Biedermeier sensibility.
The Philadelphia sound brought an added depth of field to the overall sonic picture. Though the Chamber Orchestra of Europe brought all the musical descriptions into sharp focus, the Philadelphia Orchestra expanded the horizon beyond your mind’s eye. Can you guess which of the two performances I prefer?
The program will be repeated at 2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $56-158. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.