Philadelphia's sharp sound, Watts' strong playing a rewarding package

The audience was feisty, audibly shushing novices who applauded after the opening movement of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor at the Phil Friday night. So when a phone went off during the achingly beautiful second movement, our fury was tempered by the thought of what this crowd was going to do to the offender.

Was the alpha-dog ambience fueled by the cachet of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of this continent's "Big Five"? By the fact it had brought along Andre Watts, a classical-music household name, with a tie to both Hoosiers, because he's a professor of music at Indiana University, and Philadelphia, where he first starred at age 10?

Perhaps it was the breathtaking cost of the tickets — $150 to $169?

While any of those could have added logs to the fire, the flame was Grieg. Everyone who has passed a fifth-grade music class has heard parts of it in some form, and most classical music lovers know the orchestra, conductor and soloist for their favorite version. So, perform it with attitude and confidence or not at all.

Friday the performance delivered both, to the delight of its extremely attentive audience. Watts is obviously great friends with the work, his staple on this year's tour, and his interpretation shone with a grandness equal to his formidable orchestra partner. In fact, the two were glove and hand,  now booming, now whispering, with a reading of Grieg that often was visual. For some of the more triumphal chords, Watts would hammer down and recoil from the power.

And as the piece galloped, on fire, toward the detonation of its quick final blast, conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos began leaning toward Watts until, at the telling moment, they were communicating face to face, two trapeze artists who had just caught each other midair.

Watts employs a somewhat distracting choreographic flourish with his arms, but it's probably a good contrast to de Burgos, who has Von Karajan stolidity and a clear style — dynamics to the left, tempo to the right. He was a guest conductor for this series, and is a veteran with the Philadelphians. His conducting portends music with a massive spectrum and precise playing.

Still, the orchestra's reputation rests on the discipline and skill of its nearly 100 musicians, and this one is breathtaking. Its massive string section can play a single note and create the illusion of one huge instrument.  

So if there was any hope to see a form emerge from Brahms' sprawling Symphony No. 1 it was going to come from this orchestra, who played a glowing "Wachet auf" from Bach as an opener.

Alas, after Friday, we're still waiting on that moment. de Burgos, who at nearly 80, is generally conducted seated, still brought an immense sense of drama to its opening movement,  an impressive reminder of why there's no substitute for live music.

But the encore — Cleveland, take note — was the thriller.

It was a peppery piece of virtuosity employing every player onstage in Geronimo Giménez's  "La Boda de Luis Alonso." 

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