Philadelphia Orchestra shows its distinctive qualities under free-spirited Nézet-Séguin
When Yannick Nézet-Séguin began his term as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra two years ago, he was heralded as the second coming of Leopold Stokowski (in no small part because it had been a hundred years since that legendary conductor’s own ascension in Philadelphia). Such comparisons are obviously overblown, but like his storied predecessor, Nézet-Séguin is a conductor not bound by convention.
One of his favorite Stokowskian practices seems to be the inversion of standard concert order. He’ll often place the symphony on the first half of a program, with the concerto and lighter (or at least shorter) selections after intermission.
So he did in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s concert at Carnegie Hall on Friday. There was no discernible theme to this program, which in an era of complete symphonic cycles, single-composer concerts, and the like, is actually refreshing. Nézet-Séguin’s selections on Friday were tied down to no agenda other than showing off his orchestra’s best assets during its visit.
In an era when so many American orchestras sound more generic than ever, Philly under Nézet-Séguin has been rediscovering its identity as a group that puts strings front-and-center. This was immediately apparent in the opening of Brahms’ Third Symphony: After the opening brass chords, the balance was all strings, a rich and turbulent mixture that presented waves breaking against a cliff.
The Andante was beautifully textured, precisely balanced so that its many layers contributed to a united sound. Spectacularly gorgeous, crackling cello playing began the third movement. There was a daydreaming, almost waltzing quality to the orchestra’s rendering of the pulsing melody.
Nézet-Séguin paid acute attention to accent in the bright, thrilling finale, shaping the movement intelligently so that it came down from its energetic height to close with remarkable poise. As he has done with Brahms in the past, Nézet-Séguin had his orchestra play all four movements nearly attacca, giving a sense of the symphony as one continuous whole. It worked–the musicians never broke their concentration, and neither did the audience.
French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras joined for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major. This piece is one of the earliest examples of a cello concerto, and Queyras’s playing was stylistically sensitive, though he did not allow himself to be hamstrung by blind adherence to Historical Performance creed. His playing was free and open, expressive, light in color, and judicious in use of vibrato. Nézet-Séguin, no John Eliot Gardiner himself, allowed broad playing and generous vibrato from his strings.
This concerto went undiscovered until the 1960s, presenting the curious problem of what to do about the cadenzas, since there are none surviving from contemporaries. The ones that Queyras played for the first two movements, though tasteful, were unabashedly anachronistic in style.
Queyras’s tone wasn’t consistently clear in the finale, but he showed enough virtuosity that on his third curtain call, Nézet-Séguin nudged him back to his chair for an encore (and then scampered back to find a seat among the wind section). He gave a thoughtful, loving rendition of the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite No. 4 in E-flat.
The closing piece, the suite from Der Rosenkavalier, was played with wonderful, elegant sweep. Strauss’s rich writing showed off the Philly strings at their most syrupy, bristling with warmth, and the different scenes were vividly evoked by Nézet-Séguin’s painting. The magic of the “presentation of the rose” sequence was spellbinding.
The waltzes, too were particularly exquisite. Nézet-Séguin’s precisely crafted and meticulously placed dynamics lent tipsy sentimentality to those from the second act, and there was a goofy sense of glee about the waltz from Act III. Richly charactered pieces like this one are terrific vehicles to display Nézet-Séguin’s greatest asset, his gigantic personality–he took the stage on Friday in a velvet dinner jacket with no tie, and his musicians, though in full evening attire, responded with similarly free-spirited playing.