(Reprinted from The Philadelphia Forum, April 17, 1997)

The conductors union should give Helmuth Rilling a special vote of thanks. Rilling's appearance with the Bach Festival of Philadelphia was a perfect example of the most important element a conductor contributes to a performance.

Rilling is an internationally renowned Bach specialist. He made a special trip to the United States so he could spend three days working with selected students from Temple's Esther Boyer College of Music. The only professional musician in the orchestra and chorus was the first violinist, Temple professor Helen Kwalwasser. Rilling produced one of the best Bach concerts I've ever heard because he has a clear vision of each work he conducts and his ideas on the subject are obviously based on an enormous stock of knowledge and insight. The students were playing modern instruments, but Rilling's interpretation of Bach's third orchestral suite captured most of the intimate, human-scale quality I hear in period instrument performances. His tempos kept the river flowing along at a spring-flood pace but they never sounded frantic. A deaf person could have looked at the intense, totally focused young musicians Rilling was leading and seen all the pieces of Bach's complex constructions meshing and interacting.

Rilling brought three of his regular soloists with him: mezzo Ruth Sandhoff, tenor Marcus Ullmann, and bass Thomas Quasthoff. Quasthoff's aria near the end of Cantata 110 was a major event in itself-- a great bass voice proclaiming joy while the trumpets sounded behind it. The fourth soloist in the quartet was a young Temple graduate, soprano Laura Heimes. Heimes is still developing, but she didn't sound out of place working with three vocalists who have already established big careers-- a fact that shouldn't have surprised anyone who's heard her sing at Piffaro concerts and other local events.

The loneliness of the long distance soloist.  At the latest Mozart Society concert, conductor Davis Jerome once again played the symphonies first and the concerto last-- an arrangement which lets you concentrate on the more abstract charms of the symphony when your attention span is still fresh. Haydn's E Flat trumpet concerto, played by the Philadelphia Orchestra principle trumpeter David Bilger, was the perfect dessert for an evening that included a frothy Mozart and a Haydn symphony that had most of Beethoven's grandeur and none of his belligerence. At the latest Pennsylvania Pro Musica evening, the principle flute of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Edward Schultz, played Mozart's D Major flute concerto and produced a clear, vigorous performance with a lot of character and a big, liquid tone. Schultz's cadenzas were evocative and beautifully shaded and he threw in just the right amount of showmanship to make them fun. Kyung Wha Chung's appearance with the Curtis Orchestra was less satisfactory. In the first movement of the Brahms' violin concerto, Chung tried to emphasize the competition between the orchestra and the soloist, but her body language was more dramatic than the sounds coming out of her instrument. Her best moment was the second movement, when she captured the poignancy and nobility of one of Brahms' best statements. Conductor Andre Previn, on the other hand, had one of his best evenings with the Curtis students. His opener was a thumping, big-orchestra version of the Marriage of Figaro overture. Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe suites were conducted with a sensitive feel for wind color and a go-for-broke drive for the big effect in sequences like the Warrior's Dance.

The road less traveled. The Davidsbunds and the Philadelphia Chamber Ensemble both presented pieces that proved, once again, that the catalogue of 20th Century music is packed with underplayed pleasures. At the Davidsbund's, it was a 1910 piano trio by Anton Arensky-- a piece that sounded like a love story that had been stripped of every specific referent and reduced to the moods love stories create. At the Chamber Ensemble, it was a quintet for flute, harp, and string trio that pulsed with the rhythms of 20th Century traffic and street life, even though it was built around forms that its composer, Florent Schmitt, considered archaic. Orchestra 2001 devoted its latest program to four pieces by Olivier Messiaen. All four made extensive use of the hundreds of bird songs Messiaen and his wife recorded. Birds sang under musical evocations of stained glass windows. Raucous cries alternated with evocations of Mozart's death bed. Dvorak and Kodaly wandered the countryside recording the music of the peasantry. Messiaen borrowed his tunes from the ethnic group that listened to St. Francis' sermons.

Copyright (c) 1997 by Tom Purdom.  All rights
 reserved.  This document may be printed out
 and archived for personal use only.  All other use is
 strictly prohibited.  A slightly different
 version of this piece appeared in the
 Philadelphia Forum for July 31, 1997.

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