by Steven Pisano
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra ended its most recent tour of the U.S. with a visit to Carnegie Hall on Monday night. Appropriately enough, it was an all-British program: Britten, Elgar, and Holst. I half-expected to see Union Jacks hanging from the balconies and tea carts being rolled up and down the aisles. Crumpets, anyone?
But, not all was British. The RPO's newly appointed Music Director, Vasily Petrenko, was on the podium, having succeeded Charles Dutoit who resigned in 2018 after charges of sexual misconduct. Born and raised in Russia, the 45-year-old Petrenko - whose wife Evgenia is also a conductor - became a British citizen in 2015. He opened the evening by speaking warmly to the audience from the stage, a far cry from how most top conductors walk onstage, bow to the welcoming applause, then abruptly turn their backs. (There are, of course, notable exceptions, including Michael Tilson Thomas and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.)
Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes is a dark and moody work about a fisherman suspected of murder. The orchestra played the “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera: “Dawn,” “Sunday Morning,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm.” The evocative music showcased the RPO's many strengths, particularly its string section.
Kian Soltani, born in Austria into a family of Iranian musicians, joined the orchestra for Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85, one of the great masterpieces for cello. Interestingly, the piece did not command its current reputation until 40 years after its debut, when the still-famous recording by 20-year-old Jacqueline Du Pré was released in 1965. That performance is still a marvel, primarily because the work's deeply elegiac spirit would seem beyond the emotional scope of someone so young.
The concerto is often described as expressing a yearning for a world that has been changed and lost forever. Elgar composed the work after the first World War, which had deeply troubled him. The year before, he had undergone a significant surgery, and he knew he was nearing the end of his career. “Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away," Elgar is quoted as having said, "never to return.”
The 29-year-old Soltani is clearly a master of his instrument, but sadly he never seemed to grab hold of this work's mournful grandeur. The playing felt light, playful, even a bit off-handed, failing to win over the audience.
But it was a different story after the intermission. Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” can usually be counted on to be a crowd pleaser, but under a talented baton it can be transcendent. Petrenko presented a deeply rousing rendition of the work, from the first familiar bars of the opening “Mars, the Bringer of War” all the way through the ethereal end of “Neptune, the Mystic.” It was an electric, skin-tingling performance--almost like hearing the work for the first time--and a perfect cap to the evening.