Last night, for the second time in as many years, the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to Meyerhoff Hall, this time bringing along its music director, Wolfgang Sawallisch. The program was unexceptional -- Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben," works that are the daily bread and butter of almost all orchestras and conductors.
That there was nothing routine about the performances, however, says much about the excellences of the Philadelphia ensemble and even more about those of its music director. This orchestra ranks with those of Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and New York as one of the finest in the country.
It has few, if any, discernible weaknesses. One expects a great orchestra to have woodwinds that achieve remarkable clarity in the rapid passage-work of the final movement of Beethoven's Fourth and an ensemble with enough virtuosity to play "Heldenleben" with such confidence -- but it is nevertheless nice to hear.
It is usually (though not always) a conductor, however, who endows such mechanical virtues with soul and vision, and in Sawallisch the Philadelphians have one of the best around.
It was the German-born conductor who made the final movements of the Beethoven intense as well as fast and who endowed the beautifully played Strauss tone poem with such sweep and feeling.
Sawallisch has had a long identification with Strauss -- particularly his operas. This performance had a genuinely heroic tread, a sense of dramatic excitement, warm textures and an articulate command of details that held the Straussian edifice firm.
This "Heldenleben" also featured the finest set of violin solos (by concertmaster Erez Ofer) that this listener has heard in years. This is an orchestra and conductor that can really play.
What they cannot do yet, however, is play with complete success in Meyerhoff Hall. Their own Academy of Music is as acoustically dead as last night's road kill and Meyerhoff is quite a lively place.
That is why the tympani in the final movement of the Beethoven drowned out the strings and why the brass sometimes overblew the Strauss. Such performances, however, can only make one hope that Sawallisch and his fine orchestra have the chance to get better acquainted with Meyerhoff.