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The Philadelphia Orchestra dazzles with Casella, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saens

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There are three certainties in life. The first is death. The second is taxes. The third is that when an orchestra plays pianissimo, someone in the audience will have a violent coughing fit. Saturday’s performance of Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”) by the Philadelphia Orchestra was no exception.

Nevertheless, even the most convulsive cougher could not dampen the glory of Fred, that is the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall. The third tier was apparently the place to be during the orchestra’s thunderous performance of the organ symphony where concert-goers sat mere inches from the organ’s towering pipes. Played by organist Michael Stairs, organ music is as much a tactile experience as an audible one when, backed by a full symphony orchestra, the vibrations shake the very floorboards.

The Symphony No. 3 is written in only two movements. The poco adagio passage at the end of the first movement is one of the most beautiful passages in all symphonic music, a sad/sweet dialogue between violins and cellos (it was here that the cougher made his debut). Conductor Gianandrea Noseda was clearly spent after vigorously leading organ and orchestra through the symphony.

The concert opened with Alfredo Casella’s Symphonic Fragments from La donna serpente, a piece consisting of two suites. According to the program notes, La donna serpente (The Snake-Woman) originally premiered as an opera in Rome in 1932. The first performance of the Symphonic Fragments took place in 1933.

As twentieth century music, the piece is very accessible. The second movement opens with muted cellos and a haunting oboe solo which returns again in the following Interlude. A rousing War March begins the second suite, rising to a raucous climax with pounding strings, causing a number of broken bow hairs throughout the section.

In addition to Saint-Saens and Prokofiev, Saturday’s concert also featured violinist James Ehnes playing the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2. After a flawless, dazzling performance, Ehnes concluded with the third movement of Bach’s Sonata No. 3 as an encore. Mr. Ehnes plays the 1715 “ex-Marsick” Stradivarius violin.

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