Denver Phil Brings It On Home
A review by Marc Shulgold
Sold-out orchestral concerts are a rarity in these parts—standing-room-only is simply unheard of.
Unless you’re talking about the Denver Philharmonic.
The 67-year-old ensemble (having gone through several name changes and five music directors in its history) literally packed them in on Thursday for a lively concert in KPOF Hall in downtown Denver, its home base for the past half-decade.
It’s heartening to see families, some with babes-in-arms, filing in, most of them in casual clothes. No biggie, since come-as-you-are is encouraged by the Phil. Also OK with the orchestra is tweeting during the concert (ground rules are spelled out in the program book.) Applause between movements? Go right ahead. This is meant to be fun, after all.
Such an agreeable spirit of informality seems to work: Thursday’s concert marked the end of another year of record-breaking attendance, as proudly announced by board president Jon Olafson.
If only the music-making matched all that good news.
The highlight, as expected, was Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue”, in which music director Lawrence Golan nimbly guided his players through a charged accompaniment, led by the soaring clarinet of Shaun Burley. But of course, all eyes were on the piano soloist, Fei-Fei Dong, a finalist in the 2013 Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth.
Petite in pink, she galloped right along with Golan and company, sometimes drawing a lovely tone out of her instrument, other times pounding away mercilessly. In her solos (the first of which sparked a smattering of applause from the casual crowd), she tended to rush things, resulting in occassional smearing of passages. The Chinese-born pianist appears to be a member of the Lang Lang School of Over-Emoting, as she bobbed and shook her head, gazing heavenward as it to report to us that she likes the music.
After intermission, Golan bit off more than his orchestra could chew. This is a brave band of players, many of them long-time members of the Phil (retiring violinist Pauline Dallenbach was saluted for her 51 years with the group). But the choice of Prokofiev’s wildly challenging Fifth Symphony proved unwise. In their exposed moments, the strings- particularly the violins- experienced consistent intonation problems, notably in the higher register. Unfortunately, Prokofiev just loves the higher register. Episodes of disjointed ensemble playing resulted in more noise than music. This is a symphonic masterpiece, and one worth hearing. But, alas, the Phil could not do it justice.
The concert opened with a decent run-through of John Adams’ popular post-minimalist curtain-raiser, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”
In welcoming his audience, Golan explained how the three works fit with the title of the program “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. A charming concept- but midway through the Prokofiev, I felt like hailing a taxi.