Xian Zhang’s fresh Beethoven Ninth at Mann

Philadelphia Orchestra, Xian Zhang, conducting, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, the Choral) Othalie Graham, soprano, Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano, Zach Borichevsky, tenor, Luis Ledesma, baritone, The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes, music director. J.S. Bach. Concerto for Two Violins & String Orchestra , Juliette Kang, violin, Kimberly Fisher, violin.  Mann Music Center, June 27, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

Beethoven’s Ninth (Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral)”, is so familiar we almost don’t hear the notes – waiting for the singers!  Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang used the Choral Symphony as her calling card with the Philadelphia Orchestra Wednesday night.  Her program of Beethoven and J.S. Bach opened the orchestra’s six- concert series at the Mann in Fairmount Park. Her Beethoven was fresh and focused. As focused as the unidentified bird that chirped through a stretch of the Scherzo, like a scat singer doing syncopation. Zhang, born in 1973, is the music director of Milan’s Gisueppe Verdi Symphony.  She led from memory.

Zhang’s leadership was dynamic no push- pull theatrics with the famous score. She’s got discernment. One mentor was Lorin Maazel. The strings that play so large a part had clarity in every register, violin themes and murmurs, the cellos and basses’ dark alacrity. The Scherzo’s stops and starts compelled; assertions not aggressiveness: when the theme returned it was the better for not being simply louder. There was more instrumental delight from horns and winds and Peter Smith’s oboe. The slow movement came like a breeze. By now the soloists had walked on stage.  Now it gets real, someone in the audience said.  Wrong.

Wednesday’s soloists were quality, Tenor Luis Ledesma began with a confidence and tone he didn’t quite sustain; baritone Zach Borischevsky and mezzo-soprano Margaret Mazzecappa were good choices. Othalie Graham’s soprano had pitch problems. All of the quartet sounded under-rehearsed. The  backup was the thriller – Philadelphia Singers Chorale could sing the finale to the Ninth upside down. Wednesday squeezed on stage behind the instrumentalists their joy thrilling. That inspiration was oddly lacking from all concerned when excellent principals Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher opened with J.S. Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins and String Orchestra in D Minor.  An auto pilot version of music that could have been so much more. Clearly the maestra’s attention had been on Beethoven.

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