With his Noel Coward-esque wit and solid command of the Philadelphia Orchestra, guest conductor Bramwell Tovey is always a delight to encounter in special, not-entirely-classical occasions that could easily fall apart under a lesser personality.
But on Friday at the Mann Center, Tovey conducted music that didn't require (or receive) his usual witty introductions: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. It can be as problematic as it is great, yet here was thoroughly accomplished, with excitement arising from a strong musical foundation, cultivated opinions on how the music should go, and a keen ability to make that happen.
The great British conductor Thomas Beecham was sometimes said to conduct mainly the first violin line. Tovey does the opposite: He lets the most visible stuff take care of itself (and it does) while focusing more on what's necessary to hold it aloft. His unified tempo scheme was on the brisk side, especially in the slow movement, and cohered well in the choral finale that reaches out in many directions to embrace all humanity.
Even the pithiest motifs, Beethoven's typical building blocks, were inflected with a particular energy on whatever notes best supported the music's architectural totality. This was Beethoven forged in steel without seeming machine-tooled or at all impersonal. The minute challenges posed by the then-deaf composer's orchestration were met as if they never existed.
The forces for Friday's concert were assembled jointly by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Wolf Trap Opera in Vienna, Va., whose young-artist program supplied the soloists alongside the Choral Arts Society of Washington. Beethoven's unsympathetic vocal writing is such that many are relieved to just get the notes. Here, singers put a consistent interpretive stamp on words and meaning, even while the chorus was inevitably straining to navigate the music.
The excellent quartet of soloists (including Tracy Cox, Virginie Verrez, and Robert Watson) was most notable for bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, recent recipient of a Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund and an up-and-coming singer whose voice exudes charisma in ways that even the best bass soloist can't always manage in the heroic call-to-arms of the final movement. Green's burnished, unforced sound and projection of words were all of a piece.
Beethoven's Egmont overture opened the concert with moments of depth not always heard indoors. Britten's Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes" was also a fine performance showing how Tovey effectively climaxes a movement with a slight tempo acceleration and lift in the decibel level. The amplified Mann Center sound seemed more interventionist and artificial than in past years but its top-to-bottom clarity displayed how well the Philadelphia Orchestra played. Even often-buried bassoon lines revealed the poetry of Daniel Matsukawa's playing - whether noticed or not.