Inspired playing from Curtis students

March 28, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

You might think Yuri Temirkanov wouldn't want to get near Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for a long while, having conducted the emotionally draining work many times on his recent U.S. tour with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. But there he was Tuesday evening at Philadelphia's bold new Kimmel Center leading the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music in another memorable account of the Shostakovich Fifth.

With only three rehearsals, Temirkanov and this student orchestra achieved some remarkable things. It was evident that the conductor successfully communicated his deep-rooted love and understanding of the score. By the time the ensemble reached the searing third movement, the players sounded as firmly attuned to Temirkanov's wavelength as his Russian ensemble or the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Giving the performance extra appeal was its sonic quality. You could say it wasn't supposed to sound so good.

I had assumed that this concert would provide an opportunity to hear the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall in a new light. When the hall was unveiled last December, the acoustician decided against opening up the many reverberation chambers behind the walls, a curious choice given that the chambers were an integral part of the design. The idea was to give everyone a chance to settle into the space - as is - first, and then start tinkering with the acoustics.

The result was that the Philadelphia Orchestra didn't sound spectacularly different from the way it sounded in its old theater, the Academy of Music, where reverberation and sonic spaciousness were merely theoretical concepts. No wonder that many of the initial reports in the press were not exactly ecstatic about Verizon Hall's acoustical properties.

In recent weeks, the reverberation chambers have been put into service as the Philadelphia Orchestra continues breaking in its new digs; reports on the results are mixed, but intriguing. Although the Curtis orchestra rehearsed Tuesday's program with some of the chambers open, come concert time, they were closed again.

During the first half of the concert, a lack of richness in string tone and imbalances between strings and brass were noticeable (at least in the first tier). The big moments in Shostakovich's Festive Overture had limited impact; the sound seemed rather distant, even dull.

It was pretty much the same in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2. Soloist Leila Josefowicz, a 1997 Curtis grad who has been enjoying a fast-track international career, projected well enough into the hall and certainly phrased the music effectively. But her violin received no particular bloom from the acoustics. And the orchestra continued to have a slightly anemic condition, though woodwinds came through quite vibrantly in the second movement.

So it came as a surprise when the orchestra launched into the angry opening statements of the Shostakovich Fifth. There was real bite and presence in the sound, a fullness that continued throughout the piece.

Obviously, the nature of the music itself accounts for some of the change, but the intensity of expression was the main difference. Where the orchestra had sounded competent before, it sounded thoroughly inspired and mature now, very much a showcase for the talent at one of the country's finest music conservatories.

Except for a bit of diffuseness among the cellos and an occasional frayed edge in the violins, the strings offered considerable polish and warmth. Woodwind and brass playing was mostly on a high level, as assured as it was full of character. Violin, flute, oboe and clarinet solos were delivered with a flair that many a professional orchestra would envy.

Above all, the musicians gave every indication that they understood the music's inner turmoil and conflicting passions.

Temirkanov's interpretation was essentially the same one he and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic offered at Meyerhoff Hall. The closing moments were taken a little faster, losing some of the gravity he achieved in Baltimore, but the message of pain and defiance came through just as sharply.

If the final verdict on the Kimmel Center's acoustics remains undecided, there's no question that Temirkanov and the Curtis orchestra can make potent music together.

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