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Royal Philharmonic sweats short show

Playing under a circus tent, the orchestra gives a cranky performance.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London opened the Van Wezel Hall season Saturday night, but instead of performing in a newly renovated hall, as was planned, the orchestra played Brahms and Wagner under a circus tent.

Originally, the $19.2-million renovation of Van Wezel was to be completed this month, but the start of construction was delayed by a lawsuit, and now the reopening will be in October. Nevertheless, the hall decided to make lemonade out of lemons and present an abbreviated season, including six orchestras, under a tent in the parking lot.

Given the unusual circumstances, the tent itself passed Saturday's opening test. However, the Royal Philharmonic was another matter. Under music director Daniele Gatti, the orchestra gave the occasion rather short shrift.

The air-conditioned tent is a vast (125 feet wide, 53 feet high), multicolored, fanciful structure from Circus Sarasota. There is seating for 1,510 in folding chairs on the floor and orange plastic chairs on risers around three-quarters of the circular tent. The stage is positioned almost in the round.

The intimate atmosphere is a plus, but the stage is cramped for an orchestra. Acoustics are naturally deficient. The sound decays instantly, without the resonance that sustains it in a concert hall, but nobody should expect a tent to be like Carnegie Hall. Performers and audiences with a sense of fun should have a good time under the big top.

Unfortunately, the Philharmonic appeared to be in a cranky mood. Part of the reason was a glitch in the lighting, suspended on stanchions around the stage. After the first movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 2, Gatti stopped the music and turned to the audience to explain that "We are just cooking up here" under the spotlights. The glistening perspiration on the brow of concertmaster Jonathan Carney made the point. There was a delay while the lights were dimmed.

Until the break to fix the lighting, the Royal Phil had given sleekly professional, if glib, renditions of Brahms' Tragic Overture and the "Good Friday Spell" from Wagner's Parsifal.

But its treatment of the Second Symphony was surprisingly inept, with blunt solos, ragged transitions and even outright wrong notes. The orchestra wrapped things up in just over an hour and a half, including intermission. To describe the performance as perfunctory would be putting it kindly.