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Naughty and nice: Orff and Mozart at the Philadelphia Orchestra


Cameron Kelsall


The Philadelphia Orchestra’s subscription concert last weekend featured an intriguing debut. Not Emanuel Ax, of course – he’s in his sixth decade of appearing locally. But on this occasion, he played for the first time the Maene-Viñoly Concert Grand, an instrument that has gained traction in the press since its introduction in 2022. An invention of the late architect Rafael Viñoly, who also designed the cello-like expanse of Verizon Hall, the Maene-Viñoly features an ergonomic keyboard, meant to mirror the wingspan of a pianist more naturally than a standard concert piano. The soundboard is also longer and deeper, and the piano itself looks sleek and streamlined in a futuristic way.

Ax christened the Maene-Viñoly with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major, K503. Although touted for having a subtler and more even sound – it's a straight-strung piano – I confess I didn’t hear much difference from the Steinway Grand that’s typically employed. That could have as much to do with the artist as the instrument. Ax has always been a remarkable technician, one who favors a lighter touch and supremely elegant phrasing. Those qualities were especially on display in the Andante, which held an air of wistfulness. His approach lacked impishness and brio in the outer movements, however, and the orchestra couldn’t help but absorb him in more spirited passages.

Fabio Luisi led a reading of the score that sounded a tad string-heavy in Allegro maestoso, but which settled into a pleasant though hardly revelatory traversal as it progressed. The featherweight woodwinds sounded particularly lovely in the Andante, complementing Ax’s soft-grained playing, and the timpani made its presence known without overwhelming the reduced ensemble. Luisi generally favored expansive tempi, which seemed a little slack in the Allegretto but elsewhere made for a lush, enveloping performance.

After intermission came the high drama of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Luisi used his experience as an opera conductor to seamlessly engineer the many moving parts of this secular cantata. He encouraged characterful playing with the orchestra, which came through especially in Davyd Booth’s sardonic piano solos, Patrick Williams’ youthful and airy flute passages in Tanz and the zesty, borderline vulgar contributions from the brass throughout. Overall, the Philadelphia strings, known for their uniformity and refinement, lacked a sense of rusticity and cheek.

The remarkable baritone Sean Michael Plumb displayed an instrument notable for its evenness of tone and overwhelming beauty. He shaded his genuinely lyric sound with darker, more desperate colors as the narrator grew ever more disillusioned by the caprices of fate. Tenor Sunnyboy Dladla coped heroically with the high demands of Olim lacus colueram, underscored by the sarcastic, almost quacking bassoon solo (played by Daniel Matsukawa). Soprano Audrey Luna showed no difficulty ascending to the stratospheric reaches of the score, but her voice was rather colorless throughout.

Carmina Burana is a choral showcase at heart, and the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia was in top shape, with especially fine contributions from the lower-voiced males. The Philadelphia Boys Choir and Philadelphia Girls Choir absolutely embodied the spirit of youth.

dominick smiling and looking out