No introductory explanation was given and none was needed for part two of the Philadelphia Orchestra's British Isles Festival. The program on Thursday was all musical postcards from Scotland — modern, antiquated, elemental, urban — and any words would have limited the kind of imagination listeners can bring to the piece.
The danger of the graphic musical descriptions of Scottish life in the pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies, Max Bruch, and Felix Mendelssohn is that the listener will recognize what the piece is doing on the surface and stop there. But when heard and not discussed, you realize how well they hold up in purely musical terms, even amid theatrical flourishes such as bagpiper Timothy Linahan from the Philadelphia Police and Fire Pipes and Drums making a cameo appearance.
The concert started with An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise that Maxwell Davies (who lived on the Orkney Islands) wrote in the mid-1980s as a crowd-pleasing break from his more typical works of dizzying complexity that explore the dark extremes of human behavior. What we hear is Scots making all kinds of merry in what sounds like anything but a civilized, destination wedding — all outlined in the composer's cinematic scenario.
Authority is in short supply in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, a violin concerto in all but name that's based on Scottish folk songs and sounds twee at best, cheap at worst. I'd even venture to say that the folk music, particularly in the final movement, stymied the composer's creativity. At least that's the impression I've had from performances by high-personality star violinists. But the orchestra's first associate concertmaster, Juliette Kang, didn't try to make the piece sound more imposing than it is, and did so with a rock-solid technique and beautiful tone that consistently projected sincere emotionalism. She made the piece real. I didn't know that was possible.
Her encore, a movement of Paul Hindemith's Sonata for Violin Solo Op. 31 No. 2, was even more poetically played.
The Philadelphia sound brought an added depth of field to the overall sonic picture. Though the Chamber Orchestra of Europe brought all the musical descriptions into sharp focus, the Philadelphia Orchestra expanded the horizon beyond your mind's eye. Can you guess which of the two performances I prefer?