The Philadelphia Orchestra
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Johannes Moser, cello
It is hard to take your eyes off of Donald Runnicles when he conducts, he has a warm persona, his white hair curling out and arms lurching forward like he is hugging the orchestra.
He also brings an air of musical occasion and palpable connection with the musicians. His tempos are sharp and the orchestra cohesive, the famed Philly strings at their most dimensional.
In October, Runnicles was in Philly for two weeks of performances of Beethoven, Elgar, Brahms, Strauss and Mozart on the playlist.
Runnicles opened his mini-fest with Beethoven’s 8th Symphony eliciting the chamber music luster he brings to large symphonic works. A distinct translucence he sustains that illustrates the Beethoven’s inner drive, as well as the composition’s looming symphonic architecture.
Runnicles qualities of orchestral balance were so present in the sterling performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with soloist Johannes Moser. Moser has a relaxed theatricality, but is altogether at one with the many technical demands of this piece. It was composed in 1918 at the end of WWI and Elgar was also recovering from ill health. There is an atmosphere of loss and sorrow, and its stirring eloquence unsentimental.
The sobering atmospherics give way to Elgar’s musical whimsy, maybe even the composer’s expression of joy having survived. Every implication of this piece, musically and philosophically, is fully bloomed in this performance. Elgar quicksilver cello lines, the strums, the whispering phrases and other effects, are not ornamentation. Johannes has stated as many have that he believes Elgar was writing a war requiem.
Moser’s is also at one with the full orchestra his head swings around to finish a fiery acceleration with the strings, or he leaned back to shoot a glance of appreciation with the interlocks with the lower strings. Philadelphia Orchestra seems to conjure a certain triumphal sound with Elgar; they made it a repeated showstopper last season.
Runnicles closer in the first concert was Brahms’ Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a which was a fine prelude to his imprint on the Brahms’ masterpiece Double Concerto performed the following week, with the orchestra’s concertmaster David Kim and principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni the soloists delivering a masterful performance.
Hai-Ye Ni, cello
David Kim, violin
Kim versatile in almost every style, but with Brahms his command more muscled and his artistry more vivid. Ni has a warm, inviting tone that is all about technique and character of the music and she too, is in top form and together this is sterling Brahms. If any work takes the heavy romanticism associated with Brahms’ symphonic works, it is this concerto.
The opening basso string lines she plays with lusty sonority and edge. As lead players in the same orchestra, Kim and Ni bring so much to the technical artistry to this piece. A work not often played because of its demands, it was a triple virtuoso zone, because the orchestral side of this was just as impressive.
Also on the program Mozart’s Symphony no. 29, so fascinating for its structural innovations from an 18-year-old Mozart. Even though the 1st movement is one of Wolfgang’s most recognizable the whole work is rarely performed these days and the duality of the music’s sardonic esprit and solemn meditation as present as it is in Don Giovanni.
Runnicles’ again, masterfully contours the textures as a chamber piece and the orchestra delivers a performance that is joyously Mozartian. The maestro’s closer was a lusty showpiece performance of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan.