By Lawrence Budmen 

The Philharmonia Orchestra of London has long been considered the Rolls- Royce of British orchestras. At its South Florida debut on Thursday at the Arsht Center (presented by the Concert Association of Florida), the ensemble confirmed its status as a posh, supple instrument of many facets.

Lustrous, full bodied string tone, produced with remarkable smoothness and unanimity, takes pride of place in this orchestra. Superb clarinet and oboe principals highlight a fine wind section while blazing brass exhibit absolute precision and accuracy. The groupís stunning timpani player can rock the house or provide subtle underpinning of the bass line. 

The current tour marks the conclusion of Christoph von Dohnanyiís tenure as Principal Conductor after more than a decade. A master of orchestral balance and tonal color, he is an old school maestro who offers intellectually probing interpretations of a wide ranging repertoire. 

Dohnanyi adopted Mahlerís orchestral seating plan with violins divided on both sides of the podium and basses on the far left side. This arrangement allowed antiphonal effects and inner voices to shine in symphonies by Mendelssohn and Mahler.

Dohnanyi emphasized broad contrasts in Mendelssohnís sunny Symphony No.4 in A Major (Italian). In the solemn pilgrimsí procession of the second movement, the conductor maintained an inevitable sense of line and pulse. A lyrically gracious reading of the Con moto moderato (third movement) showcased the orchestraís mellow horns, agilely shaping Mendelssohnís curving melodies. Dohnanyi set a relentless pace for the Saltarello finale, an exhilarating conclusion to a crisp, sparkling traversal of a masterwork by a 24 year old genius. 

The spirit of Gustav Mahler seemed to hover over the New World Symphonyís festival of Viennese music the previous weekend which made Dohnanyiís masterful reading of Mahlerís Symphony No.1 in D Major all the more welcome. He evoked an air of mystery in the opening pages of the Langsam. The poetic intensity of Mahlerís portrait of nature was generously shaped. 

Dohnanyiís carefully calibrated tempo accelerations and firmly controlled dynamics exploded in a sunburst of festive brass at the conclusion of the first movement. One of the joys of this performance was the slides from one phrase to the next by the string players, an authentically Mahlerian instrumental technique that was abandoned for much of the 20th century.

The vivacious landler, an Austrian peasant dance that is a predecessor of the waltz, was played with the carefree panache of a country band. In the third movement, Dohnanyi channeled the eerie wit of Mahlerí s reinvention (in a minor key) of the French round Frere Jacques. A spectacular double-bass solo introduced the melody, interrupted by rollicking klezmer band interjections. 

Without overt melodramatic exaggeration, Dohnanyi evoked the terror of the agitated finale. Contrasting string ariosos soared to other worldly heights, accompanied by angelic harp. The final triumphant pages were emblazoned in orchestral virtuosity as the entire horn section stood while playing the concluding bars, a precedent set by Mahler and his pupil and disciple Bruno Walter. Dohnanyiís objective yet powerful realization of this revolutionary score was both timeless and visionary.

Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia of London play works by Beethoven and Schumann on Friday at 8 P.M. at the Carol and Barry Kaye Performing Arts Auditorium at FAU in Boca Raton. For information call 305-808-7446 or see 

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