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Though little heard, he would have approved

David Patrick Stearns of Philadelphia Inquirer

Let's start with the obvious: The Philadelphia Orchestra's current Leonard Bernstein Festival honors its namesake in spirit more than in fact. This week's concerts offered only Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah"), but one can't imagine Bernstein being upset, since so many young composers are being encouraged with premieres of their own first works.

OK, so the composers weren't all young. But Network for New Music's Wednesday concert at the Kimmel Center ended with David Rakowski's Sex Songs, and Lenny was known to like sex. And in an era when most composers were writing small experimental works, he wrote big nonexperimental ones, not unlike Jennifer Higdon's The Singing Rooms, premiered by the orchestra Thursday.

And is it too much of a stretch to say that since Bernstein was friends with music director Christoph Eschenbach, the latter is entitled to conduct repertoire in which they both specialized? Not when it's Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in a performance that ranks with Eschenbach's best, even eclipsing Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The Higdon piece was the biggest news, clocking in at around 40 minutes and with performing forces that include full chorus, violin soloist Jennifer Koh, and the orchestra. The vocal portion is settings of Jeanne Minahan poems, set in appropriately broad choral strokes (more Ralph Vaughan Williams than Giya Kancheli, who has a similar piece), with soloist Koh elaborating on the spirit of the verse with the greater poetic and emotional specificity. First hearing at the Thursday-morning dress rehearsal suggested that Higdon was returning to territory she staked out in her popular blue cathedral. Second hearing Thursday night showed that the similarities are largely superficial, and that The Singing Rooms is a step beyond anything she's done. How much of one is difficult to say.

Unlike her Concerto 4-3 last week, there was never any place with The Singing Rooms where you didn't know what the composer was trying to do. But there were moments when you knew that you weren't hearing all that was there. Balance problems went unaddressed by the performers, choral enunciation was mushy, instrumental interludes didn't nearly justify their length, and, due to under-rehearsal, some phrases were too slack to speak. So impressions are provisional, aside from the last 15 minutes. The poem "A Word With God" is set almost in the style of a hymn, but reimagined in a personal, less formal but blessedly straightforward way. It stands among Higdon's best music.

You even wondered if her song cycle Bentley Roses, performed Wednesday by Network for New Music, was a precursor to "A Word With God." These songs for voice and chamber ensemble were written alongside her Concerto for Orchestra in 2002 as a sort of after-hours activity. What could seem too simple or mellifluous became incredibly direct thanks to the conversational eloquence of baritone Randall Scarlata.

Among the younger composers heard Wednesday, three created musical settings of the poem "Rosetta Stone" by Katrina Rutt, their differences typified by how they treated the final lines - "How you arrived:/like night's most gentle disposition." Ian Munro was nocturnal and questioning, Heidi Jacob had mellifluous piano arpeggios leading to a point of pain, and Daniel Shapiro portrayed the verse as a series of life stages that finally embrace the unknown.

In the second half, Luke Stromberg's marvelous poem "Black Thunder," about the aftereffects of drink, was given an appropriately bluesy haze by Melissa Dunphy. The concert ended with the first hearing of Rakowski's Sex Songs: They're accomplished, thoughtful and so ambitious they sometimes felt more like sinfoniettas than songs. But sexy? Not at all.

Now the Schumann: Eschenbach has recorded all the symphonies at least twice, but Thursday's performance had little in common with them. Eschenbach saw an early-romantic symphony with strong classical-era roots. The tempos truly moved with melodic lines that were as long on rhetoric as they were on breadth. Nearly every possible element, from inner string voices to the winds interplaying with strings, conspired to maintain momentum. In the particularly effective slow movement, the melodic line hovered over contrasting, tense underpinning rhythms (it's a pre-World War II Viennese thing, and Eschenbach is one of the few who do it well).

Just before each peak in the second-movement climaxes, the melodic arc was abruptly and eloquently fractured - with great dramatic effect. The orchestra's sound gave power to the music's gestures, as opposed to creating a luminous barrier between your ear and what's really there in the music (which sometimes happened with Sawallisch).

Oh, and Bernstein? The symphony went fine, with Rinat Shaham singing the text with greater authority than ever. But any Bernstein festival has to be more enterprising if it's to be more than a marketing strategy.

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