Proms 2011 - Philadelphia Orchestra and Janine Jansen

Searing performances of Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Ravel from an orchestra whose future is in doubt

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Darkness cast a shadow across Thursday's Prom, starring the Philadelphia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. You could hear it in the music: in the 'powers of darkness menacing Finland' in Sibelius’s nationalistic protest, Finlandia, Op. 26; in the Dies irae of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances; and in the post-war grotesqueries of Ravel’s La valse which, after the Rachmaninov waltz, seemed surreal, like a distorted déjà vu.

Conductor Charles Dutoit took every opportunity to show off the Philadelphia Orchestra’s luscious, glossy sound; theirs was playing with polish.

Making her entrance after the Finlandia, Janine Jansen lit up the stage with an outstanding performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Playing with spontaneity, beautifully breathed nuances, and a technique that surpasses text-book, Jansen is a virtuoso who seems totally on top of her game: she not only imbued the Tchaikovsky with fresh, stylish character – Dutoit did well to follow her – but made its fiendish passagework look easy.

Who would have guessed from the orchestra’s committed playing that grim shadows, too, are cast across its future? After filing for bankruptcy in April this year, its legal costs are nudging an estimated $3million. But the band plays on…

At a reception after the concert, Proms director Roger Wright offered a further insight into the ways in which the US economic downturn is impacting its orchestras. Explaining why the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra had only given us a taste of Walter Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances of a Theme of Hector Berlioz, Op. 25 (Prom 68), he said the Pittsburg had intended to perform the complete work both at the Proms and in the States, but when its US concert promoters pulled out, the orchestra had been left without adequate funds to rehearse it.

Wright also announced that this year’s attendance figures had surpassed last year’s, averaging a whopping 94 per cent to main evening concerts. So we’re left with a festival that packs out a 5,000-seat concert hall, every night, for two months during the summer season – and players who are unable to find the financial resources to play the music that their audiences are hungry to hear. It’s hard to square the two.

Prom 72
Sibelius: Finlandia
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
Ravel: La valse
Janine Jansen (violin); Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls