The Israel Philharmonic plays a symbolic role in the life of its nation and of its international audience that is also very real. It was an orchestra of emigres even at the time of its founding, in 1936, and the names on the personnel list today still speak of many lands that were, until recently, ruled by tyrannical regimes. The presence of security men standing in the front corners of Symphony Hall, surveying the audience throughout Monday night's concert, reminds us that states of emergency have never been far enough away during the life of this orchestra. But it's always been there to inspire and to console.
The orchestra has had its ups and downs artistically, but it's currently in good shape, with particularly lustrous string playing. Yoel Levi, the first Israeli to hold the post of principal guest conductor, is leading this tour.
For Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture and "Emperor" Concerto, Levi deployed larger orchestral forces than are fashionable now and paid a price in precision and maneuverability. The overture, in particular, sounded muscle-bound.
Andre Watts was the soloist in the concerto. The pianist played with a captivating limber elan and personal charm, but no one could describe his performance as searching. And while his technical equipment was impressive, some of the passage work was disheveled, and he had a way of arriving at the end of demanding flourishes with an ugly thump of relief.
The big symphony was Sibelius's Second -- at intermission, conductor Benjamin Zander commented on the paradox that this work is so famous and so beloved that it is seldom played anymore. When you hear the recording made by the composer's friend Robert Kajanus when the symphony was only three decades old, you realize that strange things have happened to this piece since. It's now often taken much slower, and much of its wildness has been manicured away. Kajanus found political allegory in the music, although Sibelius denied it; the composer knew that some of the music was inspired by Dante's "Divine Comedy" and by Don Juan. Today what one hears in the music is the Finnish light, the Finnish landscape, a wild, bardic presence.
Levi strove after such qualities some of the time; at other points he settled for effect and conducted the melody. In both cases, he seemed more interested in broad strokes than in subtle detail. The orchestra poured it on, and the audience responded enthusiastically, demanding two encores -- spirited Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, sending people home happy.
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Yoel Levi, principal guest conductor
Presented by FleetBoston Celebrity Series
At: Symphony Hall, Monday night