Aug. 05--Symphony orchestra as jukebox? Such was the idea behind the Philadelphia Orchestra's People's Choice concert on Friday at the Mann Center. Some 16 possibilities posted on radio station WRTI-FM's website were subject to open voting, which yielded a good medium-weight concert of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Smetana -- all classical music greatest hits that, with any luck, gave the audience an increased sense of ownership. Philosophically, it's a fine idea. But having such a concert more than once a year might not be healthy.
Though this is the sort of program the orchestra members could play on their deathbeds, the performances had curious blank spots. For all of its "Yay, Finland!" spirit, Sibelius' Finlandia didn't have much inner fire, especially compared to the particularly ecstatic treatment of the sunrise music from Grieg's Peer Gynt.
And with less overall viewpoint at work, the concert -- which was directed at neophytes and thus needed to be as good as it could be -- wasn't always well sequenced. After Wagner's bombastic "Ride of the Valkyries," Smetana's pastoral The Moldau felt like a conquered territory. Also, following public taste rather than leading it is an awfully passive policy for such high-caliber musicians as the Philadelphia Orchestra and its excellent associate conductor, Cristian Macelaru.
Some music was programmed apart from the voting, such as violinist Eunice Kim playing the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, full of intricate interplay between soloist and orchestra plus witty effects dependent on softer playing that barely registered in this semi-outdoor venue. Of course, this showpiece based on the opera Carmen couldn't help but make a strong impression. But one looks forward to the more sympathetic circumstances Kim no doubt will have as part of Astral Artists, a finishing program for young musicians.
The winner of the concert was Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, Romeo and Juliet, which gave the orchestra and Macelaru something substantial to dig into in a performance that had all the needed passion and precision.
The concert's host was WRTI's Gregg Whiteside, who had the breeziness of a stand-up comic, never talking down to the audience. And though his talk went a bit long, you had to love his irony. "I'm your spiritual voice," he told the orchestra -- he's the announcer of its Sunday broadcasts -- "and don't you forget it!"
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