The Philadelphia Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Jeremy Denk, pianist
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia Oct. 8

New York based pianist and star blogger Jeremy Denk seems to like the sixth borough, otherwise known as Philly, performing at Verizon Hall for the third time in the last two years. He was in front of Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra very much the showman. He played to a sparce Friday afternoon subscription crowd, the center of an interesting, not entirely cohesive program of Liszt, Prokofiev and Henri Dutilleux. Dutoit wanted, however obliquely, to highlight musical connections between these works and the maestro is also kicking off a season long examination of French composers.

Dutilleux, now 94, is musical heir apparent to Ravel and Debussy, whose music drew inspiration from the impressionist painters. Dutoit chose his 70s composition ‘Timbres, espace, movement, ou La Nuit Etoilee, which demonstrates that the composer is also compelling not derivative of those composers. He cites Van Gogh’s Starry Night, abstractly, one guesses, because the music is a sound Rorschach of moods and visuals.

Dutoit essayed an eerily airless start to Timbres. Metallic f/x and percussive novas flare from nowhere to keep you off-center, but more intriguing are dense orchestral passages sounding like inverted melody lines. A 12- strong cello section fronted, instead of a standard line-up with violins-violas, but this configuration almost vaporous in the first section (Nebuleuse). The cellos weighed heavily in during the second half (Constellations) dramatically with basso bowing reminiscent at points to Bernard Hermann’s film score to Psycho. By the end, the orchestra crystallized the sound and vision, but it seemed coldly academic.

The atmospherics of the Dutilleux are a million miles from the Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1, a virtuosic showcase for Jeremy Denk, and he delivered, even with some campy affectations (rapturous facial expressions and dancy arms). Liszt was at risk of listing. But, Denk had moments of sublime engagement with the orchestra, highlighted by muscular trio phrases with principal violin David Kim and cellist Efe Baltacigil. In the central solo section, Denk stripped away any velvet drapery with unfussy technique and authentic passionato.

Dutoit is so adroit going beneath the surface on an easy crowd pleaser like Prokofiev’s ballet score to Romeo and Juliet, giving all parts equal musical space (unlike Riccardo Muti erratic rendition here last winter with the NY Phil). Juliet’s theme as vibrant as the court processional and the tempo precision during Tybalt’s swashbuckling demise, keeping the ballet narrative vivid. Dutoit also igniting a glowing sonority in the strings. The original fab Phils are performing this program in Denk’s neighborhood at Carnegie Hall this week.