The audience was ready and seated at Verizon Hall. But no musicians were on stage. Oh, no! Not another strike.
No worries. That Soviet-era trickster of a composer, Alfred Schnittke, was at work - not a reprise of the orchestra's infamous Sept. 30 walkout - in the piece Moz-Art à la Haydn for two violinists and two orchestras. It began Thursday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert under guest conductor Louis Langrée with a certain amount of staging: Musicians entered all at once, and the auditorium went into near-complete darkness, with lights coming on abruptly with the first full orchestral entrance. Soloists Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher alternately played together and against each other like dueling divas, amid a classical-era mashup dating from 1977, before we had words for such things.
Musicians and audience seemed game for this bagatelle from the black-humor soul of Schnittke, who died in 1998, leaving a range of superadventurous works that are still far from fully understood. He also set the tone for a concert that often asked you to forget what you thought you knew about those ultrafamiliar classical music gods Beethoven and Brahms. The longtime music director of New York's Mostly Mozart Festival, Langrée has shown a different side of his personality in his Cincinnati Symphony tenure (since 2013) -- he seems to have a bold, new piece on every program. Guest violinist Midori, now in her mid-40s, has evolved into an ever more challenging artist, in her own genteel way.
Most major Beethoven works have a pronounced heroic element, but Midori seemed determined not to go there. She whispered her way through the first two movements of the composer's Violin Concerto. From her first entrance, her tone was demure, mostly vibratoless, and sharply focused. Her phrasing was so legato -- more in the manner of chamber music than a concerto -- that she downplayed the drama and smoothed the rough edges, but not in the interest of being suave. This was about profound introspection.
Inflections were deeply considered and projected with great focus, which helped make her interpretation carry into the hall even when she was at the lower edge of audibility. If you isolated any number of moments, you might have declared them to be revelations. However, a certain kind of sameness set in. And dare I say that the poetic delicacy of her performance grew precious (in the affected sense of the word)? There were signs of restlessness in the audience, but not many. She was greeted quite warmly. Whether you agreed with her or not, the intimacy she achieved in her performance was pretty rare, but, more important, she created a unique chapter in one's listening history with the piece. Something was clearly happening here in real time, and audiences rightly adore that.
In his Philadelphia Orchestra debut, Langrée went to a different extreme in the Brahms Symphony No. 2. Among the Philadelphia Orchestra performances of the piece in recent years, Donald Runnicles was memorable for his lyricism, Yannick Nézet-Séguin for the integrated balance of all the symphony's elements (tunes, counterpoint, structure, etc.). Langrée delivered a rugged antiethereal first movement; a brisk, crisp third movement; and a blazing, exuberant final movement -- though always with close attention to how orchestration creates well-defined coloristic shifts. He encouraged a saturated string sound that was so echt-Philadelphia he seemed to channel Eugene Ormandy.