Friday, November 14, 2008

Philadelphia Orchestra Concert - Die Meistersinger 13 November 2008

Sam Shirakawa journeyed to Philadelphia last night to see and hear James Morris in some Die Meistersinger highlights with the Philadelphia Orchestra .... but.....well, read on:

The management of the Philadelphia Orchestra this week found that Friday the 13th fell on Thursday.

Mid-morning on 13 November, baritone and renowned Wagner singer James Morris declared indisposition and cancelled his appearance at that evening's concert in Verizon Hall. A frantic search ultimately led to Myrtle Beach, where a replacement was hastily recruited in the person of Tom Fox.

No announcement of the day's events was made to the audience in attendance until just before Mr. Fox appeared on stage -- possibly because he arrived at the hall after the first half of the concert had begun. Nobody, I guess, was sure if he would show up.

Well, he did show up, and an hour's worth of "bleeding chunks" from Die Meistersinger went off as though Mr. Fox had been originally scheduled. While his performance fell a tad short of commanding, his traversal of the Fliedermonolog, the Wahnmonolog and Hans Sach's final oration was imbued with confidence, a firm line, rhythmic incisiveness and stylistic grace.

It would be churlish to delve further into the performance of any last-minute replacement, especially one that literally had just popped in off the street, so I won't. If his name doesn't ring a bell, you may remember him as Alberich or as Jaroslav Prus [pop quiz: what's the opera?] at the Met. But all that was at least seven years ago, and Mr. Fox has spent the interim years building his sizable repertoire at numerous European venues, notably in Mannheim, where he appeared as Hans Sachs for the first time earlier this month in a new production of Meistersinger directed by Jens-Daniel Herzog and led by Friedemann Layer.

The current string of concerts is being led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a popular guest with the Orchestra and possibly one of the five most underrated conductors in the last third of the 20th century. [Pick the other four yourself.] Given the massive truncations necessary in reducing the Meistersinger excerpts to an hour's length and the requisite compromises in accommodating a last-minute stand-in, Frühbeck could only render an inkling of what he might do with a complete performance of Wagner's masterpiece. But it was a tantalizing inkling.

Brief and also tantalizing interjections were provided by Canadian tenor Jeffrey Halili and soprano Jessica Julin, as well as the Philadelphia Singers Chorale.

The only palpable evidence of mishaps occurred in the surtitles flashed above the performing platform. Mechanical failures or human error left the words "ignore them" on the scrim for an inordinately long time during the Fliedermonolog.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the program was the reading of Beethoven's Symphony Nr. 8, which took up the first half of the program. But a website devoted to opera is not the place for a discussion of it.

Whether James Morris will appear at all remains to be heard. He has two more chances: tonight and tomorrow [editor's note: according to the Philadelphia Orchestra website, Mr. Fox was scheduled to sing Friday's and Saturday's concerts]. If Tom Fox continues to replace him, it would be worth hearing how good a fit he makes by Saturday evening.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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