There's a whiff of desperation to the Philadelphia Orchestra's current campaign to save music with the help of visuals. The latest salvo, unveiled Thursday night, imported artist/filmmaker Tal Rosner, who projected video pastiches on tall hanging scrims of Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to roll along with the four movements of Britten's four "Sea Interludes."
Whether this sort of thing is an augmentation or a distraction is very much a personal call, and there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. As the most visible local steward of the artform, the Philadelphia Orchestra must exercise wisdom on these outings, and the wise cultural policy move would probably be to refrain from profoundly altering how a piece is experienced unless the composer has given consent. The orchestra did seek and receive permission from Britten's publisher to add video.
The results may not have been persuasive, even if Britten were alive today. Most of Rosner's work was dull and tame - skyline, bridge, and architectural-detail shots of the four cities whose respective orchestras commissioned the video. Still, the fourth segment showed what's possible. It wasn't just that the pacing had edge; the quality of the footage itself - traffic jams and tension - was measurably more stylish, the montages assembled in a way that, indeed, added a layer of meaning not available in the music. The pale color-block wipes and sunset footage of the other three had as much artistic content as a chamber-of-commerce spot.
If you considered all this a transgression of Britten's dignity, conductor Donald Runnicles courted irony, if not outright hypocrisy, by asking the audience to not applaud out of respect for Britten after Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. A soulful patchwork of descending A-minor scales, scored for strings and tubular bell, it seems to channel to something already in the atmosphere - in this case, written just after Britten's death in 1976, grief - and yet its vernacular remains stirring and relevant.
In terms of artistic weight, the centerpiece of the program was Britten's strange and beautiful Violin Concerto, and, more specifically, violinist Janine Jansen, who has made the work a specialty. It recalls William Walton in being sweet and austere at the same time. Jansen is its best advocate, her big tone and sinewy turns extracting incisive emotions from a score that consciously (and quite successfully) avoids cliche.
The orchestrations remain startling in their originality, and the emotional flow always led from and to unexpected places. Some argue for the influence of Prokofiev. Shostakovich is a better frame of reference for the demons and salve haunting this score.
Runnicles noted Britten's admiration of Mozart in the decision to cap a three-fourths Britten program with the Symphony No. 36, "Linz." The orchestra was greatly enhanced by the presence of guest hornist Julie Landsman, whose Mozart style involves outlining doublings in delicate colors, and by oboist Richard Woodhams' pinpoint moments of detailed phrasings. Runnicles' rough edges - unsteady tempos, an unevenly sought ensemble sound - undermined the grace and inevitability of the last movement. That may have been his aim, and if so, at least it felt close enough to Mozart's intent that no one felt a composer's specter hovering about with a frown.