Family Concert Occasion for Introduction

By Peter Dobrin, Music Critic
Philadelphia Inquirer
Oct. 13, 2008

With the Philadelphia Orchestra's new artistic chief, Charles Dutoit, the reigning king of French repertoire, you might have expected to see him atop the podium in Verizon Hall on Saturday morning leading Poulenc's The Story of Babar.

Dutoit is in town now, and this family concert on the little elephant would have been a plum moment for him to look across the footlights with his solid-gold smile to the important constituency of children and young parents.

Instead, it was the occasion for an introduction.

Danail Rachev, the orchestra's new assistant conductor, made his debut with the ensemble. Rachev comes most recently from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and since the staff conductors in Philadelphia have become the orchestra's workhorses, you probably will be seeing plenty of him.

A complete personality portrait isn't possible to draw from a concert of this kind - a one-hour appearance in which the conductor has to accommodate actors and gags, plus the special needs of a student competition winner. But the student, it turns out, needed no special attention.

Vicki Powell, who was 19 when she won the Greenfield Competition's senior-division title in February, is a student of Roberto Diaz at the Curtis Institute of Music, and she shares with her teacher many of the sensibilities he brought to the orchestra before stepping down as principal violist.

On this morning, in the opening movement from the Stamitz Viola Concerto in D Major, Powell was a fully formed artist. She has a sound that is refined, but that has no trouble projecting. She has none of the tension in her playing that many young string players bring while simply trying to get the notes down. She has them down, and she spins them out with a coolness (not to mention poise) that is remarkable at any age.

The music is vaguely Mozartian, though with the workout of an etude, raising the question of what she could do with something more expressively sophisticated - say, the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante.

The orchestra announced the signing of Rachev in December, saying his duties would extend for at least 12 weeks each season. He is expected to lead family, outreach and educational concerts.

Rachev has said he is inspired by the success of his fellow Bulgarian, Rossen Milanov, the orchestra's associate conductor. When he auditioned last fall, Rachev said he had never worked with an orchestra on the level of Philadelphia's before. He did excerpts of Brahms Symphony No. 3 and Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute.

Rachev opened with a piece that put the focus on him. Passing up the light touch that makes the overture to The Barber of Seville glide, he dug deeply into phrases. In terms of podium movement, Rachev met the score as though it were more Mahler than Rossini. It wasn't the most beneficial approach.

In Babar, however, there was much to savor. It's a piece that asks for multitasking - with its accompanying narration, taken by the wonderfully boyish Michael Boudewyns, and acting with partner Sara Valentine. The music, though, written by Poulenc and gorgeously orchestrated by Jean Francaix, carries on a relationship with the story all its own.

The opening music, for instance, is unmistakably evocative of an elephant, but devoid of cliche and, smartly, any trace of cartoonishness. Poulenc has that rare gift of understatement; he acknowledges sentiment without being too sentimental.

The piece is also a slight concerto for orchestra, with bold, highly polished (if brief) roles for tuba player Carol Jantsch, trombonist Matthew Vaughn, clarinetist Samuel Caviezel, contrabassonist Holly Blake and, with car horns resonant, principal percussionist Christopher Deviney.