When Philadelphia Orchestra principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève throws his weight behind a composer, he doesn’t let up.
His devotion to John Williams, for one, is the gift that keeps giving — most recently in Wednesday’s special program benefiting the orchestra musicians’ pension fund, with composer and conductor sharing the podium. But the 47-year-old French composer Guillaume Connesson?
His music made it into Denève‘s own conducting appearance at Verizon Hall on Thursday night, and, far from being radical, his Flammenschrift (“Flame Writing”) began the program as a canny, likable alternative to the more typical curtain-raisers. The orchestration immediately tells you that you’re in the same musical universe as the rest of the program, which included Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration.
Ostensibly a tribute to Beethoven, Flammenschrift owes more to 20th-century composers Albert Roussel and Arthur Honegger, and shows Connesson at his most exciting. But because the piece doesn’t tap into the composer’s distinctive gift for melody, it’s not his most satisfying. The music colorfully surges all over the place with short, punchy motifs (similar to Beethoven, though not as interesting) but ultimately seems busy without being edgy, like Christopher Rouse without mania.
It’s clever, accomplished, and has learned well from past composers — maybe a little too well. The ending almost revisits the concluding moments of Ravel’s La Valse, suspense techniques and all. And with La Valse ending the concert, Flammenschrift faced an unflattering comparison.
Though Ravel’s music seems to depict no less than old-world Europe waltzing its way into collapse after World War I, Flammenschrift just gave you an orchestral effect that you could mindlessly applaud, especially as the Philadelphia Orchestra gave it the concert’s best performance.
Next week is Connesson’s And the River Shimmers in the Valley, and to judge from Denève’s Deutsche Grammophon-label recording of the piece with the Brussels Philharmonic, the composer seems to have channeled his energy into something more ecstatic. Just don’t go in expecting anything as deep as Mahler.
And the rest of the program? Problems here and there in the orchestra were apparent, though minor. La Valse seemed under-rehearsed, with some muddy inner voices — always obvious in Ravel — though the closer the piece hurtled toward the ruined gentility of its conclusion, the more clean and committed the performance was, achieving an appropriately splashy conclusion.
Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration benefited enormously from Denève‘s Gallic sense of color. Yet it felt more like a series of effects than a piece about profound transformation.
Russian violinist Vadim Repin stood in for Hilary Hahn, who was originally scheduled to play the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1. In contrast to Hahn, Repin has never been the most technically sturdy player out there (and felt more fallible than usual on Thursday), though his depth of understanding makes his performances something I always seek out.
His playing of the concerto’s opening pages — among Prokofiev’s most magical — was a pretty special moment. From there, Repin was gentlemanly, observing the piece with respect rather than intense engagement. That in itself is a virtue, though not a crowd-pleasing one.
Repin is best with more mature works. Prokofiev was in his mid-20s when he wrote this piece, which may explain why this concerto isn’t among those in his discography.
The program is repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Tickets: $44-$163. Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.