Nézet-Séguin Takes Charge

By on January 27, 2013

NS1The new music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra Yannick Nézet-Séguin was in town for two weeks of concerts with his new orchestra. The net result seemed a fair sampling of what the upcoming years at Verizon Hall will likely feature, and that should be very good indeed. The venerable Philadelphia Orchestra has weathered a decade of turn-over and turmoil, recently emerging from bankruptcy. The Eschenbach years were marked by discord and decline in  standards. Charles Dutoit was awarded only a limited title when he took over and began to turn things around. The recession of 2008 could not have helped. The full story has not yet been told.

kavakosThe first week program was Ravel’s La Valse, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos playing the Szymanowski Second Violin Concerto in between. Ravel’s La Valse is fifteen minute showpiece that has been in the repertory of several Philadelphian conductors for a long time, most particularly Dutoit and Ormandy and Muti. It begins as a colorful tribute to the Viennese dance form, expands it, colors it and then descends into rhythmic chaos, symbolizing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (?). Whatever the composer’s true inspiration, Nézet-Séguin gave it a dazzling run-through, not just focusing on the virtuoso elements of the score, but digging deeper for musical meaning beyond the notes, as he has done before. All of this is to the benefit of the performance which was impressive as an opening number.

Kavakos gave as good an account of the Polish post-Romantic composer’s last concerto and got solid backing from the Philadelphians. It is an easily accessible piece, but like other works by this composer, not always fully engaging the ear. Karol Szymanowski has style and substance, sitting astride changing musical trends of his time capably without seeming to leave a strong lasting impression. Szymanowski certainly has recently had his advocates. Simon Rattle is certainly one. Kavakos may be another.  It certainly had committed advocacy this time out.

NS2The second half of the program was also a Philly favorite of Stokowski, Ormandy, Muti, and Eschenbach all of whom have recorded it, Shostakovich’s most popular symphony the 5th. Shostakovich had written it in response to intense criticism from the Soviet hyperarchy of the time which had held up and thwarted several performances of recent compositions. It put him back in favor. Again the young French- Canadian music director gave a energetic and considered account, not just a virtuoso run-through. The last movement can be played as a quick step through the parade grounds to a splashy conclusion. Not here, it particularly benefited from the individual but eminently logical interpretation it received.

There was a run-up to Carnegie Hall for an appearance during this two-week residency. What did the jaded New Yorkers make of the new partnership? Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times wrote: “This performance (Shostakovich) was so driving and glorious you did not care. The ovation was enormous. The orchestra has come through rough times, including a financial crisis and a leadership vacuum. But the Philadelphia Orchestra seems to have found its ideal music director….” In the Huffington Post, Ayano Hodouchi, who had reservations about the Ravel wrote,  “Nézet-Séguin was a decisive conductor, and the orchestra made music as one machine, not a mass of loosely collected musicians. The strings had just the right balance of steely gleam and melodious appeal, the woodwinds were throaty and beautiful, and Nézet-Séguin’s grip on the music did not waver for one moment, keeping the music taut and tense throughout. ”

brucknerThe second program was clearly more personal. The conductor made an extended explication of the program from the stage before appearing to conduct. Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for full orchestra and Bruckner’s most played symphony the Seventh. The new music director has signaled since his appointment was announced his desire to perform Bruckner in Philadelphia. He has recorded four of the symphonies in Montreal with his Orchestre Métropolitain.

The Philadelphians have played Bruckner before and recorded several symphonies with Ormandy and Sawallisch. Eschenbach made the Sixth something of a calling card, but the Bruckner tradition in Philadelphians will not rival that in Berlin and Vienna. It is well documented that Bruckner in America has been largely a non-starter until recently. Bruckner symphonies have been regarded as the ‘symphonic boa-constrictors’ one critic once called them. When The US did develop a taste for long post-Romantic symphonies, it was the works of Mahler they craved, thanks largely to the advocacy of Bernstein and others. It was not until the arrival of Masur in New York and Sawallisch in Philadelphia that the US got regular doses of the shy Austrian organist-composer, though William Steinberg in Pittsburg and Boston had given the composer the ‘college try.’ His recording of the Seventh Symphony deserves resurrection.

The Siegfried Idyll benefited from a lush but intense treatment with excellent solo work. This led into Nézet-Séguin conducting the Bruckner without a score and clearly delighting in the various high points of Bruckner’s writing, underscoring phrasing with ardor and an understanding of origins of Bruckner’s inspiration. There was attention to spiritual intensity and a singing line in the interpretation, which put at least one listener in mind of the young conductor’s mentor Carlo Maria Giulini a late convert to Bruckner who left behind some outstanding recordings of the last three symphonies. It would be hard to imagine a better-layered or more inspiring reading of this work. Many conductors, particularly elderly ones, seem to allow this work to unfold. Others like Yannick seem to conduct it with a sense of where it is going and how. This was a remarkable achievement. More please.

nstalkAt a post-concert talk with the audience, which is in danger of becoming a new tradition, the conductor-communicator discussed his attachment to Bruckner and left the impression we will be hearing more. Communication is clearly critical to this conductor. He has exposed himself to his audiences like no one else we have ever seen. He fields the most inane comments with unfailing graciousness. Thursday night he was handed a goodie bag from the front row by an elderly admirer. Not surprisingly he has collected enormous goodwill in a town where latecomers and listeners rustling shopping bags once ran the risk of  a stinging rebuke from the podium. With Yannick, we are light-years away from the aristocrats of the podium like Beecham, Szell and Reiner who used to teach conducting up the street at Curtis.

Has this conductor found the key to success in classical music in the 21st Century? Building a community of connected admirers? We’ll see.

bag2The audience that Thursday night was populated with Bruckner lovers who showed up at the pre-concert talk, some with scores in hand, other arguing favorite interpreters. One man had a photo of the controversial  symbol crash in the Seventh Symphony taped to Bruckner’s original manuscript in his i-phone which he was showing around. The composer no doubt would have been pleased.  So would the founders of the Philadelphia Orchestra who wanted it to survive and remain relevant. Perhaps Yannick is also an educator, of audiences and Boards of Directors. Whatever your thoughts, the Nézet-Séguin era is well under way and it will not be like any other.


Curtis Rittenhouse


About Tom Godfrey

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