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Pictures at an Exhibition

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/14/2008 -  
Béla Bartók: Suite from “The Miraculous Mandarin”
Claude Debussy: Nocturnes
Gustav Holst: The Planets Opus 32

Women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes (Music Director), the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)

Charles Dutoit wore last night’s concert like a classic French model wore a Valentino dress. Yes, the 73-year-old conductor can play music of any period. But his affections are so allied with orchestral color that he couldn’t have picked three more appropriate works.

Perhaps because Dutoit will be taking over as Artistic Director and Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra this September, he wanted guaranteed success. Or, perhaps because he simply feels good with this music, it was difficult to fail.

Obviously, it was coincidence that New-Yorkers could have identified with the suite from Miraculous Mandarin. After all, one of our own elite mandarins has just been “killed” by a sensuous femme de la nuit, and Bartók’s gory story fit that headline perfectly. But no, it seems unlikely that most in the sedate audience would have recognized the metaphor.

What they did recognize was how Dutoit handled the complex feelings of the suite. Even without the ballet, it must be sensuous, chaotic and macabre at times. The Philadelphia Orchestra started with the fracas of a busy street, and went straight onto the dance of the girl at the window. From here, there was no stopping Dutoit. The weird glissandi motifs of the muted trombone were eerie, the other dances equally grisly.

Dutoit’s mastery as a painter, though—not a Rembrandt but a Tintoretto, a Caravaggio, even his countryman Paul Klée—was best put to use in Debussy’s Nocturnes. He began “Clouds” slowly, and only fractionally increased the tempos, but always keeping the flow, the current; what Debussy called the “slow and melancholy passage… changing into vague grey.”

Fêtes loosened Dutoit and the orchestra, from the slowly swirling strings to the brass, and a big processional march with trumpets blazing. Finally, the wonderful Women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale joined in the wordless finale of Sirènes.

That was the last we "saw" of the women. But in the last movement of Holst’s The Planets, they delivered more voiceless musings from offstage. But of course, Dutoit began with a thunderous “Mars: The Bringer of War”. Listening to it live (and Dutoit made it live) was a breathtaking experience, with the trombones at the end actually frightening.

Admittedly, even with Dutoit at the helm, a little planet goes a long way, but he projected Saturn’s old age mournfully, Uranus was magic, and Neptune skipped around the cosmos wonderfully. We could have done without Jupiter, though. No getting away from it: the “bringer of jollity” was a very garrulous old figure, singing some public-school hymns, not much fun at all.

That, though, was not Dutoit’s fault. He painted astrological pictures like everything else, with bright spots, mysterious shadows, and more often, with sunlit radiance.

Harry Rolnick



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