In a program loaded with glamorous hybrid jazz, Dvořák's incessantly heard Symphony No. 9 ("New World") is what made Thursday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert distinguished: Guest conductor Bramwell Tovey projected a distinctively personal view of Dvořák that showed where the music elsewhere on the program had somewhat lost its way.
The Philadelphia Orchestra laudably broke out of its comfort zone in the first half with Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs – written for jazz band with solo clarinet – and with the premiere of Imaginary Day, Duo Concerto for Vibraphone, Marimba, and Orchestra, based on music from Pat Metheny's Imaginary Day album and adapted for orchestra by principal percussionist Chris Deviney. But bringing together the jazz and classical worlds requires so much high-concept maneuvering that emotional content was often lost amid mighty sounds and the thrills that come with them.
The 1949 Prelude gets votes in some circles for Bernstein's worst piece, so frequently does it cross-cut between clashing jazz manners. It can't decide if it wants to bebop or strip-tease, and the ending often misfires.
With saxophone augmentation plus guest pianist Charles Abramovic, the reduced orchestra gave a tight, purposeful performance. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales easily filled the shoes of those who have come before him (Benny Goodman, for one). Conductor Tovey revealed how some melodies were warmups for West Side Story and how the piece's abrasive fragmentation of ideas would evolve into Mass. And the ending came off just fine.
Metheny doesn't clash enough. The original cuts adapted from his Imaginary Day album -- "The Awakening," "Across the Sky," and "The Heat of the Day" -- are smoothly contoured with polished, synthesized surfaces and the kind of gestures I've heard so many other places, usually in inspirational ballads and movie scores. Even inventive guitar solos never transform the music into something of greater significance, no matter how much the faux-visionary titles might suggest otherwise.
Classical audiences are used to more light, shade, and incident. Clearly, I did not inherit the Metheny Gene.
That said, Deviney's transcription masterfully pulled layers of music out of what often seems like a synthesized soup, with the music hugely benefiting from the more natural warmth of symphonic instruments. Deviney and She-e Wu gave knockout performances on vibraphone and marimba, respectively, with more heat than I hear in the Metheny originals.
The sheer energy of the piece made sure that everybody had a whale of a time. But there was nothing close to the expressive content that I hear in jazz hybrid works by Wynton Marsalis or Hannibal Lokumbe.
Or Dvořák. The degree of expressive detail in the first two movements was such that even the slow introduction to the first movement felt like a piece unto itself. The second movement's English horn solo played by Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia was hypnotic for its understated eloquence. And, in general, Tovey favored a lighter-weight sonority that brought out the more pastoral qualities of the piece -- one of many reasons it felt so fresh.