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Philadelphia bass Eric Owens gave an affecting performance of Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia bass Eric Owens gave an affecting performance of Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
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Dramatic concert begins on a downbeat

The announcement of Leonore Annenberg's death stunned many.

Customarily, Philadelphia Orchestra musicians begin concerts with a short spoken introduction to the music about to be played. On Thursday, concertmaster David Kim instead dedicated the concert to philanthropist Leonore Annenberg, who had died that morning. The astounded gasp heard throughout Verizon Hall suggested that many hadn't heard.

For all of the animated music-making - and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" left the audience cheering - the Annenberg moment was the evening's most dramatic. The orchestra had lost its godmother.

The dedication landed on a program with a multiplicity of functions befitting the city's keystone musical organization. There was continuity: Having just wrapped up a run of Mahler's Das klagende Lied, the orchestra moved on to the composer's next major work, Songs of a Wayfarer. Philadelphia bass Eric Owens sang them with a raw, personal projection of the text that was all the more affecting for lacking suave vocalism.

The jazz world was acknowledged in Darius Milhaud's greatest hit, the 1923 Creation of the World ballet, and though the classical/jazz juxtaposition created a "New World" counterpoint to Dvorak, the music is no longer novel and is always best kept in the ballet orchestra pit. I'm being too nice: It's dopey, superficial music, especially compared with Milhaud's masterpieces, like the opera Christophe Colomb.

Few composers are as perpetually welcome as Dvorak, and though the departed Christoph Eschenbach accustomed my ears to hearing the "New World" symphony with every harmonic resolution expressing longing for repose, chief conductor Charles Dutoit made much of the interplay between orchestral choirs. There was less of Dutoit's rhythmic grace and high-gloss surfaces, but the final movement was scintillating.

The heart of the program was George Walker's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning song cycle Lilacs. Honors don't guarantee popularity - a shame, since this piece is among the most original settings of four selected verses of Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Many composers are shanghaied by Whitman's flowers and birds. But the birds are from the swamp and give voice to mankind's anguish. Flowers are a painful memory. Walker embraces all of that. Lilacs expresses profound crisis.

Musically, the four songs are built over a chord heard in various guises that inscrutably denies allegiances to major or minor so that perpetual uncertainty prevails. But what truly makes Lilacs a cycle is an overall musical character that embodies qualities observed from each verse.

The opening poem is treated like a memory, and sets the tone for amorphous form throughout: The songs feel like darkish clouds or foreboding dreams with no usual beginning, middle and end. With that amorphousness comes a cunning flexibility, allowing the composer to move quickly into an emotional extreme in any given line.

The final song breaks out of the spare sound palette into percussion effects that are all the more provocative because Walker has given you no previous point of reference for what they signify. Often, his precise emotional references lie behind a thin veil. But that only pulls you closer to the music and allows ample room for your own emotional responses - especially with a tenor of Russell Thomas' caliber. His beautifully studied performance laid out every phrase with literal and poetic clarity. How nice that singer and songs will also be heard Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

The program will be repeated at 8 tonight at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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