Philadelphia Orchestra bids good-bye to Colorado with a stunning final performance
Time moves; things come and go and with it good things come to an end - or perhaps I should look at it like the Buddhists, "this too shall pass." But somehow that doesn't make writing this review any easier knowing that tonight was the last night for the Philadelphia Orchestra here at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. It was such an amazing concert. All the pieces fell into place. And yet I will have to wait until next year to hear the Philadelphia musicians back at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.
Tonight's performance was conducted by Rossen Milanov. The opening piece was a modern composition Rainbow Body for Orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis. It is a melding of two ideas, a theme (or chant) by medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and the Buddhist concept of obtaining enlightenment - where the body is transformed into light or energy. Milanov carefully crafted each entrance, as they each seemingly stand alone amid a soft wash of sound, an orchestral chant. The chant doesn't maintain a strong sense of rhythm, yet combined with the soloists the music is filled with passion. Eventually Milanov brings the prime theme in the strings soaring over the audience, creating a sense of grace and awe at the world, then elevating this with brass and percussion with amazing articulation. His masterful control of dynamics, entrances and emotional journey of the music is stunning.
The music itself is rich in textures - moving and shifting tonal colors, never quite settling into one place before evaporating, replaced by another texture. There is a great sense of building to the piece with a sonic fullness in the end. If there is life after death, then the journey must sound something like this.
Opening with such a piece makes it tough on the next number, and yet Alisa Weilerstein's performance of Schelomo, Rhapsondy for Cello and Orchestra by Ernest Bloch was up for the challenge. The music is based on Ecclesastes 1:2-9 which translated basically says "Everything is meaningless." Bloch originally wanted to write the piece for voice and orchestra but couldn't find a language that would fit appropriately, and he didn't know his Hebrew well enough. Eventually a friend, Alexander Barjansky encouraged him to write the "voice" of Solomon as a cello and the piece came to life.
The passage is dark and the music is filled with anxiety. If the cello's voice was to be that of Solomon, Ms Weilerstein's face was Solomon's face. As she emotionally prepared for the piece we could sense the anguish and mourning reflected in her demeanor. This is powerful music demanding a sense of pathos. Ms Weilerstein understood the depth of the music and played to match the gravity of the words. As the music progressed, Milanov was like Prospero, gathering the storm, bringing the elements together in masterful tempest. If "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again" (as found later in the Biblical passage) the darkness of the mood was clear with the orchestral elements under Milanov's command. At times the full force of the orchestra was brought down to a whisper to allow Ms Weilerstein's "voice" to be heard, to lament, to weep. Yet, even then Milanov would coerce an accent to embellish the agony, to swell the sense of despair. It is extremely difficult to keep an orchestra in check allowing a cello to be heard, particularly when playing in the lower register, yet Milanov made certain every moment of Ms Weilerstein's beautiful (if tragic) playing was at the emotional forefront of the piece.
Alisa Weilerstein proved master of not on the emotional tenor of the music, but the complexity of the rapid figures, often requiring her to moved the length of the fingerboard with no time to prepare. Add to this a string broke on her cello as the piece began to swell. Unable to continue, she quickly replaced the string, returned to the stage and continued - without loss of emotional power or concentration. It was an amazing performance by cellist, conductor and orchestra.
After intermission we were "gifted" with a signature piece of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. As Milanov began he practically played each instrument providing not only the tempo but the emotional nuances with his entire body. Later he deftly shifted between strong punching music to a lofting oboe melody, the Philadelphia Orchestra negotiating the transition perfectly. Milanov demand of the brass was absolute in his face, and the responded with absolute power, with a series of climaxes. It was inconceivable how Milanov kept bringing wave after wave of growth to the music and still edging more out of the orchestra.
The second movement started Frantic string and yet somehow Milanov translated both the frantic-ness to the rest of the orchestra yet maintained control. Then, with a wave of his hand we were back to a lovely sweeping melody. In the third movement Milanov opened his arms and the world of music pour off the stage and over the audience. He couldn't help but smile at the richness of the performance; neither could we. In the end, Rachmaninoff loves themes, beautiful, lush themes, and this symphony is filled with them. As the Philadelphia Orchestra reached the final crest of the last wave, the audience exploded into a standing ovation with whops and hollers in appreciation for a masterful performance.
Next Tuesday Vail Mountain School plays host to a wonderful chamber concert of Schubert, Mozart and Dohnanyi. On Friday the New York Philharmonic light up the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater with Alan Gilbert conducting a selection of songs by Copland and others. While it is sad to say good-bye to the Philadelphia Orchestra, there is still light in the distance and much more Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival to come.