News Column

Legrand's new harp concerto seduces

February 12, 2014

By David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer



Feb. 12--Any harp concerto -- especially one by a composer whose life has been devoted to creating music designed to please rather than disturb ("The Windmills of Your Mind," The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) -- isn't going to be imposing, and maybe not all that deep. The question, at the world premiere of Michel Legrand's Harp Concerto, was how much that matters.

The Monday performance at the Kimmel Center by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia -- not attended by the 81-year-old composer, who fell ill before getting to town -- depended much on the musical charisma of its dedicatee, harpist Catherine Michel, at least in the first movement. There, the veteran film composer and songwriter engaged in a certain amount of compositional throat-clearing, trying this idea and that in various combinations of solo harp and orchestra. Yes, he, too, can write a multi-level first movement.

Then the second movement moved right into the center of melodic Legrand territory, unfurling slowly with a gentle, melancholic undertow and a warmth that moved beyond musical boundaries and the part of your brain that sifts good from bad. It simply couldn't be resisted. Edgier, jazz-influenced cross-rhythms brought the third movement to a relatively spirited, urbane close.

The range of colors and spatial effects (foreground vs. background) from Michel was often bold, and needed to be before the piece itself found its legs. Mostly, the concerto kept her so busy that she let pages of music drop to the stage floor as she was finished with them, making her bows charmingly problematic. Too bad Legrand wasn't there.

The rest of the concert under music director Dirk BrossÉ had its quirks. A suite of orchestrated dances by Rameau was, with the modern-instrument string tone, far from the French baroque composer's sound world. And in contrast to conductor laureate Ignat Solzhenitsyn's predilection for presenting symphonies with a unified overall tempo scheme, BrossÉ made each movement in Haydn's Symphony No. 104 an individual world.

Perhaps unintentionally, the performance became a cross-section of 20th-century Haydn performance practice. The slowish, weighty treatment of the first movement was Kurt Sanderling circa 1967, the more buoyant treatment of the second was Eugen Jochum circa 1974, the quick, dance-accented minuet felt like Roger Norrington circa 1998, and the final movement had the explosiveness of Leonard Bernstein circa 1986.

The orchestra strained to sustain the slower tempos but played fairly well for the most part, despite the absence of many of the usual faces (who are shared by Opera Philadelphia). I missed them very much.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)


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