July 24, 2013

The Philadelphia Orchestra Returns After an Almost 50 Year Absence

William and Judith Scheide clearly have deep roots in Princeton, but until this past week, no one in the community knew about their strong connection to the Philadelphia Orchestra. From his earliest days at Princeton University, Mr. Scheide was a Friday afternoon concert-goer to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, where he no doubt reveled in the orchestra’s rendition of Leopold Stokowski’s lush arrangements of Bach. Judith Scheide also attended Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, perhaps unknowingly at the same performances as Mr. Scheide. The stars converged last Wednesday night as the Scheides, conductor Mark Laycock (no stranger to the orchestra himself) and “Those Fabulous Philadelphians” came together at Richardson Auditorium for the annual Scheide Midsummer Celebration. The Philadelphia Orchestra has not performed in Princeton since 1964, and although many Princetonians likely make the journey to the Orchestra’s new home at the Kimmel Center, there is nothing like the ensemble’s clean, precise and rich playing in Princeton’s own backyard.

The legendary Philadelphia Orchestra “sound” has changed since the days of Eugene Ormandy’s performance at McCarter Theatre in 1964. Once heavy on string sonorities and legato playing, principal conductors since Ormandy, most notably Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, crafted a leaner and more supple string sound and introduced a number of young players into the ensemble, adding to the Orchestra’s musical vibrancy. Wednesday night’s concert of refreshing and energetic works showed a wide range of dynamic and stylistic nuance, and it was clear that conductor Mark Laycock was having a great time painting on the Philadelphia Orchestra palette.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1 in D Major is one of the composer’s most popular works, but not many ensembles can execute it at the speed at which Mr. Laycock began the opening Allegro movement. Ultimate precision marked this performance, whether it was a pair of bassoons against pizzicato violins, the internal winds of the third movement Gavotta or timpanist Don Liuzzi finding an incredible range of dynamics — always on the front edge of the rhythm. Conducting from memory, Mr. Laycock was thoroughly comfortable with all the works on the program, and the Prokofiev was an effective way to reintroduce the Philadelphia Orchestra to the Princeton community.

Carl Maria von Weber’s opera overtures have survived almost more successfully than the operas themselves, and his Overture to Oberon well captured the early 19th-century German musical preoccupation with magic and the supernatural. Particularly marked by Jeffrey Lang’s clear and resonant horn solo, rich sectional playing from the violas and celli, and a languorous clarinet solo from Samuel Caviezel, the orchestra’s performance of this Overture emphasized the same dynamic rises in intensity as can be heard in Weber’s more familiar Overture to Der Freischütz.

The Philadelphia Orchestra demonstrated its ability to deftly shift musical gears as Mr. Laycock led the instrumentalists through the seven-part set of Variations on a Theme Of Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Remarkably light and airy in orchestration (especially the combination of winds and lower strings, and clarinets and horns), the Brahms work was led by Mr. Laycock with effective changes in tempo and character as the ensemble reached its fullest sound half-way through. The seventh variation in particular showed a nice lilt and smooth blend of sound within the Baroque Siciliano form.

The orchestra reached its height of majestic power in Robert Schumann’s Spring Symphony, full of characteristic youthful energy and rich chorale textures. A programmatic work in its connection to poetry, Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major was full of difficult stops and starts which the orchestra handled well, and smooth transitions between sections, especially in the third movement alternation of Scherzos and Trios. The fourth movement Allegro Animato was played with a strong emphasis on animato, evoking the playfulness of summer. A spirited encore of the Overture to Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla brought a grand and glorious finish to a summer concert which has become equally as grand a tradition in the community.