ORLANDO — It’s never business as usual for an orchestra when The Rite of Spring is programmed. At least it shouldn’t be: Though the various innovations of Stravinsky’s once-shocking piece from 1913 became ubiquitous in much of the 20th-century and contemporary works that followed, a solid performance always resurrects the frisson, primitivist rawness, and terrifying earthiness captured in the score.
The Orlando Philharmonic played the Rite at Steinmetz Hall in two performances the weekend of Nov. 4. To the best of my knowledge, the Central Florida ensemble hadn’t tackled it since 2012, when former music director Christopher Wilkins led a performance at the now-defunct Bob Carr Theater in what I remember as being a shaky interpretation of this most demanding of works — a flub in the solo bassoon right in the beginning wasn’t the only culprit — though it was still held together by the conductor’s coherent artistic vision.
Many things have changed since 2012: The orchestra has moved to the new hall, Eric Jacobsen, who last conducted the Rite in 2019 with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony, has replaced Wilkins, and many of the principals have changed. (The current woodwind principals are arguably the best the orchestra has had.) The Nov. 4 performance — coupled with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, with soloist Emanuel Ax, and opening with Anna Clyne’s This Moment — showed an Orlando Philharmonic as compelling as I’ve heard it in more than 15 years.
Gabriel Bergeron-Langlois, in his first season as principal bassoon, delivered the famous languid, high-pitched solo of the beginning almost effortlessly. The restless orchestral burbling that soon follows, extending over the remainder of Part I, was as bleak and sinister as it should be. Alarming timpani strokes and trombone blasts with surly slides injected jeering cynicism into “Spring Rounds,” with a frenzied Jacobsen guiding the players through a barbaric “Dance of the Earth.”
That’s not to say that it was a flawless performance: In some sections, loudness got the better of precision, especially in the motoric, meter-shifting strings in the beginning of “Augurs of Spring.” Later, some fuzziness blurred sections of Part II, “The Sacrifice.” The clangorous ensemble fortes seemed to wear out and lose cohesion among all the instrumentalists, especially toward the end, when the tightness between extended brass, woodwinds, and strings that had made “Dance of the Earth” a highlight started to loosen. Then again, in the concluding “Sacrificial Dance” I heard excellent playing with a nearly maniacal edge from principal trombone Jeffrey Thomas and acting principal trumpet Thomas Macklin. Together with their colleagues, they gave Orlando a seething, turbulent Rite.
There were no revelations in the straightforward reading of the Mozart concerto, though Ax’s youthful, almost winsome performance added much-needed freshness to the longish piece. Ax had last appeared with Jacobsen and the orchestra in late 2016, playing Beethoven; before summoning him onstage on this occasion, Jacobsen delighted in telling the story of how he forgot his concert pants that evening. A makeshift pair had to do.
Wearing the right pants this time, Jacobsen led the ensemble through well-executed shifts in dynamics in the sonata-form first movement. Ax would glance at Jacobsen to match his tempo — perfectly suited for the jovial mood of the concerto, cast in sunny C major. In the outer movements, Ax played with a pure, pearly tone, handling fluctuations in volume with dexterity while clearly projecting above the orchestra, yet always of a piece with the instrumental groups supporting him. His smooth pedaling made the scalar runs down the keyboard sound dreamy and detached, with shapely turns that took on an almost carefree mood. All of that was encapsulated in the first-movement cadenza. The woodwinds were superb: Principal flute Colleen Blagov and principal oboe Jamie Strefeler warmly echoed the first movement’s “Marseillaise”-esque second theme after its statement by the soloist.
Though the second and third movements are less substantial than the first — the motivic development pales in comparison — Ax made them enjoyable with an eiderdown touch in the Andante and a crystal-clear legato in the recurring theme of the finale. The encore was the third movement of the Piano Concerto No. 17, which replaced No. 25 in Sunday’s program. Sticking to the tradition of playing a short solo selection of contrasting temperament might have added some variety; also in a major key (the not-distant G), the character of the outer movements of both concertos is essentially the same.
Clyne’s This Moment is a League of American Orchestras commission that is part of a 30-orchestra consortium performing works by women composers. I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra world premiere at Colorado’s high-altitude Bravo! Vail festival in the summer of 2023, when it was used as the opener for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, from which the new piece borrows two themes. When I met Clyne in Colorado, she said that she was already contemplating making revisions to the score even before the performance. The changes are subtle, though it seemed like the quotation from the “Lacrimosa” of the Requiem is now more discernible.
The consortium is giving This Moment a longer lifespan than commissioned concert-openers usually get: After the premiere, the Philadelphians took it home for a second performance in October, and the Portland Columbia Symphony played it Nov. 11 and 12 in Oregon. It will travel next to the Columbus Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra in May.
Though I described the short piece as “solemn and wrenching” after the premiere, the Orlando performance was rather disappointing: The ensemble ultimately didn’t quite catch the shifting moods and layering of textures that defines the piece. The phrasing and changes in dynamics were there, but they came across as glib, rather than organic and cogent. There were imprecise intonation in the brass and murky spots, which together resulted in a washed-out symphonic essay. The group did get off on the right foot, though — in the beginning, the tentative strings that soon grow into a full theme were more focused, and the bowed vibraphone gave off rich overtones that ricocheted across the hall.