Having hosted a particularly heady succession of guests in recent weeks, the Philadelphia Orchestra experienced no lull, artistically or viscerally, with the lesser-known violinist Julian Rachlin and conductor Philippe Jordan.
Both are major musical personalities, which is a great thing when repertoire includes Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (a specialty of the beloved Wolfgang Sawallisch) and Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 2 (which sorely needs rehabilitation).
The orchestra responded extraordinarily well to its guests and repertoire Thursday at the Kimmel Center, especially with Strauss, in which the ensemble's famous sonic richness came in thicker, foamier waves than what I remember from Sawallisch's Heldenleben. A clear alternative to Sawallisch, Jordan proved that more glamour need not be less tasteful.
As an accomplished conductor, Strauss took a relatively restrained approach with his music: The notes said what they meant and didn't need to be sold to listeners with garish showmanship or brainy articulation. The underlying dramatic narratives - this one is scenes from the life of an all-purpose hero - were somewhat subdued when the composer conducted. Sawallisch's hallmark was a more yielding, succulent version of this approach. Well, goodbye to that.
The extensive theater credits of the lanky, dashing, Swiss-born Jordan (31-year-old son of the recently deceased conductor Armin Jordan) explain why he approached Heldenleben as an opera in disguise, not only highlighting the logic behind the piece's thematic transformations, but appointing himself as stage director and set designer in sound. His imaginative touches were so well-realized they felt three-dimensional.
As someone who finds Heldenleben to be obnoxious in its manner, third-rate in its thematic content, and badly paced in its denouement, I was thoroughly taken in. Same thing with Messiaen's early, somewhat crude Les Offrandes Oubliees; it succeeded not in spite of its episodic nature, but because episodes were robustly painted.
Jordan was also key in the Shostakovich success; the soloist is asked to duet with a number of individuals within the orchestra for often obscure reasons amid quirky folk-culture references in doggerel-like repetition.
The far greater burden of translating the piece's enigmas belonged to Rachlin, an easy equal of the best violinists of his generation. One of his prime attributes is an ability to play percussive, multi-stop chords without the slightest loss in color. This concerto is full of those; Rachlin was indefatigable.
On the surface, the 1967 concerto can seem like a casually composed rerun of much else in Shostakovich's output. Closer inspection suggests the composer used the same gestures to say different things, and in a manner that's more inward and fearlessly charmless. Listeners can forget about being met halfway.
Clearly, Rachlin has sorted out at great length what the piece says overtly and covertly, which was manifested in consistently specific phrase-shaping that's been lacking in even the best performances I've heard. The piece still suffers from cadenza overload (the violin is unaccompanied as often as not). But at least we now know the concerto can be viable.