A Romeo Who Struts, A Juliet Who Glitters

Jeremy Denk
New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Charles Dutoit’s position as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra was always meant to be an interim job, a way for both the ensemble and Mr. Dutoit to capitalize on their longstanding relationship while the management searched for a music director to succeed Christoph Eschenbach.

Last spring Philadelphia found its man in the Canadian hot property Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But Mr. Nézet-Séguin does not take over until 2012. And if the colorful, high-energy program Mr. Dutoit conducted at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday is any indication, he plans to keep the orchestra sounding sharp and vital until Mr. Nézet-Séguin turns up.

Mr. Dutoit has always been partial to the lavishly scored, rhythmically vibrant works of 20th-century Russian and French composers, but colorful scoring is only a starting point for him. His practice — most evident in the selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with which he closed the program — is to magnify contrasts. Bright hues take on an almost blinding gleam, softer ones have a velvety glow, and dynamics are expanded similarly.

I cannot recall hearing a performance of the “Montagues and Capulets” or “Death of Tybalt” scenes that matched Mr. Dutoit’s reading for swagger, let alone deep, pounding basses and percussion, and growling brasses. And Mr. Dutoit was no less vivid at the other end of the spectrum. “The Young Juliet” was painted in crystalline textures, with the orchestra’s woodwinds at their best, and both “Madrigal” and the minuet had an evocative dreaminess and irresistible Romantic sweep.

The trouble with this approach is that the line between the vivid and the garish can be thin, depending on how forgiving (or how addicted to sheer sonic thrills) a listener is. At the very least Mr. Dutoit put a toe over that line on occasion; several times he unquestionably darted past it and reveled in the excess before heading back to the realm of less debatable interpretive taste.

Mr. Dutoit opened his program with Henri Dutilleux’s harmonically bracing “Timbres, Espace, Mouvement, ou la Nuit Étoilée” (1978, revised 1990), a three-movement exploration of texture, inspired by van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The woodwinds played with an alluring gracefulness that embraced the work’s mystery and exoticism, and the cellos (there are no upper strings here) and percussion provided power and heft.

Between the Dutilleux and the Prokofiev the pianist Jeremy Denk joined Mr. Dutoit and company for a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Mr. Dutoit set the tone with an opening passage that leaned on Liszt’s dramatic dissonances and demanded an assertive pianistic response. Mr. Denk supplied that, along with a sparkling, powerhouse sound. But typically for Mr. Denk, his reading never threatened to be matter over mind. Every phrase was fluid, shapely and thoughtfully etched. He made Liszt seem, at least in passing, as if he were as deep and revolutionary a thinker as Beethoven.