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Review: Philadelphia Orchestra Is In ‘Superb Form’ Under Nézet-Séguin’s Baton

Philadelphia Orchestra

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, December 11, 2017

The Philadelphia Orchestra in its latest Carnegie Hall appearance under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin began exhilaratingly with the New York premiere of Thomas Adès’s newly expanded Suite from Powder Her Face, an orchestral suite appropriating music from his first opera, composed in 1995. On the heels of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of his third opera, The Exterminating Angel, it was exciting to be exposed to Adès’s earlier, equally thrilling, work.

Adès’s ambitious orchestral writing is technically impressive and visceral in its impact. His music avoids feeling derivative, even when alluding to popular song and dance rhythms; melody and tonality give the listener something to grab onto, while bathing in wildly innovative, frequently dark, textures.

The piece begins with the opera’s overture, which places us in a world of jazz-inflected, decadent subversiveness. The second movement, Scene with Song, which lifts music from the opera’s first scene, brims with life, unfolding dramatically. Philadelphia’s powerful percussion section rose to the fore as the movement climaxed with a jolting falling-pitch effect from the chimes. The third movement, an ironically slow, forlorn Wedding March, is contrapuntal in the extreme. What seems like a hundred concurrent, long-arced melodies converge into a dense, oozing mass. The subsequent Waltz, using pizzicato to ethereal effect, sounded fiendishly difficult; indeed, one especially rhythmically intricate passage threatened to derail. But Nézet-Séguin held firm, and brought about a safe landing. The penultimate movement, a transcription of the opera’s Hotel Manager’s Aria, “It Is Too Late,” was a longueur, but featured a splendidly played horn solo, a long-spun reverie in the instrument’s mournful tenor range.

While composers have long fashioned orchestral suites of music from longer ballets and operas, and this is a satisfying entry into that canon, it remains a pu-pu platter of passages from the opera, rather than a stand-alone piece of its own right. A full production of Powder Her Face would be most welcome in New York. But, as a chamber opera (it only employed four singers and a small orchestra in its original form) it would seem to be New York City Opera territory, rather than the Metropolitan (of which the impossibly busy Nézet-Séguin is currently music director designate).

However, Nézet-Séguin’s flair for contemporary repertoire bodes well for those who would like to see the Met move into a more contemporary direction. The dynamic Nézet-Séguin has a refreshingly open and engaging rapport with the Philadelphia musicians, and the venerated ensemble is in superb form under his energetic direction. They exist not so much as one organism, but as a thriving community, each of the sections having a distinctive personality, rising to the fore or dipping into the background in a well-choreographed sonic painting. Their intonation is flawless, easily besting Boston and New York in this department. The orchestra’s palette of colors within each dynamic level is exciting, especially in their exquisite pianissimos.

Violinist Hilary Hahn with Yannick Nézet-Seguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall

Violinist Hilary Hahn with Yannick Nézet-Seguin conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.

The beloved violinist Hilary Hahn, who debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 14 in 1993, and is currently artist-in-residence with the orchestra, then joined for Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion, as part of the ongoing worldwide celebration of Bernstein’s centenary. Inspired by various aspects of love discussed in Plato’s Symposium, the 1954 work’s literary program might seem pretentious. But taken purely as a violin concerto, the piece is glorious, basking in the Americana sound of Aaron Copland, and as melodically arresting as Bernstein’s theatre works. This moving, uplifting performance could not have been bettered.

Hahn’s warm, inviting tone and impeccable intonation (especially with the piece’s maze of double-stops — when the violinist must play two strings at once) underpinned a rhythmically sharp and emotionally expansive interpretation. Hahn was visibly invested in the score, barely restraining the urge to dance during orchestral interludes.

The storied Philadelphia strings were on maximum display in the fretful ‘Molto tenuto’ that introduces the fifth movement, “Socrates: Alcibiades,” on the ‘demonology’ of love, which begins with some of Bernstein’s most wrought harmonies, and graduates to a driving jazz-influenced ‘Allegro motto vivace’ that brings the piece to a thrilling conclusion.

After intermission, the concert continued with Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39. The great Finnish symphonist’s first is grounded in the Beethoven tradition, using fairly modest forces for the late nineteenth century (tuba and harp are the only real extravagances), but his way around the orchestra, and his wide-ranging musical imagination Interestingly, the piece was premiered in 1899 when the composer’s native Finland struggled under Russian oppression, and the symphony was premiered alongside a choral ditty of Finnish patriotism called The Song of the Athenians, yet in this symphony, many have noted the influence of Russians Tchaikovsky and Borodin.

The first and last movements recall the composer’s earlier, nationalistic tone poems such as En saga, bursting with solemn, Nordic folk-like tunes, and an epic ambiance suggestive of images from the Disney film Frozen. But perhaps in response to the tension of then-current events, Sibelius’s symphony has more urgency than those atmospheric works, and Nézet-Séguin employed sweeping gestures to mold the dramatic swells, and the players responded spiritedly.

The second movement, a gripping, endless fantasia-like melody expansively scored for the whole orchestra, gave each section of the ensemble a moment to shine, with magic from the golden-hued woodwind choir, soul-stirring horns burning hotly beneath floating, shimmering strings. The exigent scherzo was propelled by thunderous timpani playing. These inner movements anticipate the promise that Sibelius would fulfill in his later, more famous symphonies.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s greatest quality is heard in the playing of its soloists, who seem free to express themselves. Indeed most of the evening’s solos, from the clarinet, horn, bassoon, and many others, were characterful and individualistic, much like the work of Adès, Bernstein, and Sibelius.


The Philadelphia Orchestra in concert at Carnegie Hall on Friday, December 9, 2017 at 8:00pm. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Music Director and Conductor; guest soloist Hilary Hahn, violin.

THOMAS ADÈS Powder Her Face Suite (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
BERNSTEIN Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 1
Encore: BACH Gigue from Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006

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Cover: Yannick Nézet-Seguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall; photo: Steve J. Sherman.


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