The Philadelphia Orchestra: Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3

A difficulty with the great moments in our lives is our inability to replicate them without augmentation. The first time you see that movie that moved you to tears, or the joke your friend told as you sat around the fire that perfect summer evening that left everyone crying because they laughed so hard, or the perfectly cooked holiday meal where the food was so good that people forgot their family quibbles. There is a meaningful quality that cannot be described in such moments; no matter how hard we try to repeat them, many of the circumstances are different. 

Therein lies the problem. We want to recreate the past feeling so often that we fail to live in the present and appreciate fully what is in front of us. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s lineup this year has been an embarrassment of riches; Hilary Hahn, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and others, each bringing gravitas and weight to their various performances, matched to perfection by an orchestra specializing in precision, balance, and tone. As I traveled to the Kimmel Cultural Campus this evening, I found myself wishing I could repeat the experience of any one of those previous performances. 

I looked over this evening’s programme. The first two entries did not pique my interest — I have never intentionally turned on Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite at home, nor do I tend to get excited about modern commissions and compositions, nor the motives and politics behind them. If I continued thinking in that way, I could have missed the performance this evening, wistfully longing for recent concert nostalgia. Fortunately, I was able to recognize this flawed thinking and address that cognitive bias.

I needed to give Stéphane Denève and Yefim Bronfman the opportunity to impress, after all, they have the Philadelphia Orchestra behind them, and a quality concert pedigree. 

Stéphane Denève graduated from the Paris conservatory and is currently the music director of the St. Lewis symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony. He travels and guest conducts regularly throughout America and Europe. I would describe his style and approach as flowing water. He brought a natural smoothness to the music; which is not to say that it did not transition quickly when needed, but that the movements and parts of a piece transitioned like well-formed poetry. Accents and percussion came in with the necessary punch but he kept the rest of the orchestra flowing like a river when youth toss rocks trying to make the biggest splash. In spite of my known preference for Yannick’s interpretation, I found Mr. Denève’s style quite refreshing. 

His interpretation of Revel raised the work in my eyes, especially the fifth movement, The Fairy Garden. The lyrical nature of the piece swelled and dropped in a truly interesting fashion. It is worth listening to on the radio/internet broadcast, even though the audience’s polite applause indicated a general lack of enthusiasm at the performance. 

Six time Grammy Award Nominee (and one time winner) Yefim Bronfman, who goes by Fima among his associates, is one of those journeymen concert pianists who has received many accolades, yet missed the elusive super-star status that some achieve, much like a Scotty Pippin or David Robinson playing basketball at a time of Michael Jordan. Or if you prefer, America’s Test Kitchen in a time of Bobby Flay. Such individuals are still all-stars, though less commonly known among casual concert-goers. 

Elena Firsova wrote this evening’s piano concerto for tonight’s soloist, and this was the American premier of the concert. While it did a magnificent job of showcasing his mastery of feel, volume, and tone, I am saddened to say I did not find it musically pleasing. It mirrored many of the post-modern composers who lack awareness that less notes and more volume (and vice versa) do not make impressive music. The literary equivalent of the piece would be to take a paragraph from books of every genre—western, romance, mystery, fantasy, war, science fiction, etc.— and put them together and expect the story to be rational, enjoyable, and worth reading. 

A poorly conceived piece played brilliantly does not make a worthwhile concert experience. This piece marred a thus-far impecable season at the Philidelphia Orchestra and strengthened my internal argument that many a commissioned piece are not worth the time and effort of the conductor, musicians, and audience. My low expectations for the piece were still way too high. 

Fortunately, our pianist returned to play an encore even though no one stood up for an ovation (perhaps he wanted to showcase his real capacity, and who can blame him). He played one of my favorite Nocturnes from the first classical CD set I ever purchased “Piano by Candlelight.” His tone was perfection and his dynamic control could match any performance heard this year. It was beautiful. 

Rachminoff’s third and last symphony showcases his fully developed musical voice with its distinctive eastern European roots and new world influences. After the previous piece, our crowd would have celebrated any decent composition. If audiences heard this Orchestra’s performance of the work, it would not likely have received the bitter reception it originally experienced. The themes from this piece rolled over the audience in refreshing waves of renewal. 

Want to hear for yourself? Philidelphia Orchestra concerts are broadcast on WRTI 90.1 FM on Sunday Afternoons at 1 p.m. and are repeated on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD 2. Visit to listen.

Be sure to visit The Philadelphia Orchestra online to see upcoming events in the 2022-2023 season, as well as the newly announced 2023-2024 season!

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