What could be a more potent evening of a mix of music by Claude Debussy and Jennifer Higdon, so it was disappointing to see empty seats in Verizon Hall for the first of three concerts.
Hidgon has commissions world over, lives in Philadelphia and couldn’t do us more proud as not only one of the composers of her generation and at the height of her creativity. Higdon was on hand for the pre-concert series LiveNotes, to talk about music with Robert Spano and soloist Benjamin Beilman, a virtuoso 25 year old was playing Higdon’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize awarded Violin Concerto which she composed for the towering talents of Hilary Hahn in 2008, also a Curtis alum.
The concert opened with a rote reading of Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral a lush tone poem (orchestration by Stokowski). The piece had a studied quality in the first half, but fully bloomed with those full symphonic surges awakening its mystique. In contrast, the orchestra locked instantly in fiery form with Higdon’s Violin Concerto, over three movements that shape -shift conventions and bristles with unexpected musical ideas. The first movement, 1726, is titled for the street address of the Curtis Institute, a musical homage to the roster, past and present, of Curtis’ young virtuosos.
Beilman carving those scratchy, exploratory string lines, surfing the edge of dissonance, then gliding with sonorous command. Hidgon devises not only a framework for the soloist, but on an equally compelling parallel violin track played by associate concert master Juliet Kang. Kang and Beilman weave in and out of the concerto’s orchestral crosscurrents that never engulf; Higdon’s chamber music inner circle of lead cellos, violas and violins in sumptuous interplay.
There are effects with celesta and xylophone simmering and fast fades to lingering bent-notes that echo Asian minimalism. Beilman’s lead breaks to torrential solo passages of fiendish speed (the breakneck technique required a given). His mature tone and phrasing displaying both control and interpretive skills.
Higdon came onstage hugging Spano and Beilman to a rowdy and deserved standing ovation. Higdon’s Blue Cathedral is her somber and serene tone poem and musical elegy. The arc of this is Debussian, ethereal lower strings, eloquent and serene lines with the players fading out by ringing metal ball cymbals.
As fiery and detailed as the orchestra performed the first movement of Debussy’s Iberia, the following two sections struck as underpowered and even hazy at key points. But, this fade-out hardly takes away from an altogether vibrant musical evening.