Lang Lang behaves, while Philadelphia Orchestra and audience don’t at Carnegie
There’s no question that the Yannick Nézet-Séguin star is ascendant, and deservedly so. He is already at the head of three important orchestras, including one which he has restored to international prominence, and in the weeks following the announcement of James Levine’s retirement from the Metropolitan Opera, the local whispers around his name have grown steadily more intense.
For the first half of Wednesday’s Philadelphia Orchestra appearance at Carnegie Hall, though, he managed to stay out of the spotlight. The evening’s soloist, Lang Lang, has been maturing musically in recent years and finding more restraint in his playing, but Wednesday’s concerto, Rachmaninoff No. 1, was a perfect vehicle for his familiar showmanship. He indulged in a huge, blustery sound that amply filled out the music’s broad passions, but also showed a wonderful textural softness in his lyrical playing. Even as he oversells the performance physically, illustrating his phrases with hand gestures and offering “helpful” cues to the woodwinds, his playing itself is sensitive, honest, and beautifully contrasted.
Lang occasionally gave in to his aggressive instincts in the Andante, but at least there was nothing precious about his playing; we felt throughout the unabashed Romantic spirit of the music as it traced enormous arches, helped along, of course, by the burnished Philadelphia strings. There was a little muddiness in the opening flourish of the finale, but on the whole Lang made an impressive, thrilling end to the concerto, and followed it with a glittery, glossy, rippling account of Mingxin Du’s Dance of the Coral.
Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians mostly stayed out of the way in the concerto, but even as they did so they played with superb weight and definition in their sound. Though this First Concerto at times struggles to find its way, when played with such precision and purpose as on Wednesday’s concert it is every bit as compelling as the more celebrated Second and Third.
Yet in the performance that followed of Mahler’s Symphony No 10 the Philadelphia Orchestra sounded entirely unlike themselves. It began well enough—the opening was stunning, with the violas creating a hair-raising combination of dead calm and foreboding as they introduced a pining melody. They had no trouble at all reconciling the thick Romanticism of the music with its feeling of creeping discomfort. And yet even here, the famous, bristling warmth of the strings sounded oddly choked and intonation was not always pristine.
The first Scherzo, meanwhile, was about as close to a mess as this orchestra ever gets. The players were often disjointed, and even where they were clearly together, the playing seemed lost, listless, lacking in confidence. More effective was the “Purgatorio,” where the restlessness of the repeated trilling figure sustained an uneasy momentum.
It’s hard to hear the fourth movement as a scherzo, but so it is marked—Mahler here pits a worried intensity against singing, sighing earnestness. The orchestra showed their best tone of the night, riveting and burning, and Concertmaster David Kim’s solos were pure silk. Even so, the performance had the feeling of an assemblage of excellent parts that failed to congeal into a compelling whole.
The symphony ended as strongly as it had begun, with arresting, harrowing sobriety. The musicians seemed to find their focus again, and the sounds coming from the stage, from cloudy whispers to soaring heights, were extraordinary. Still, it was hard to discern the significance of the movement, divorced as it was from any integral sense of the symphony in its entirety. The focus was regained, and there were some lovely sounds coming from the stage, but it was hard to fit this into the larger narrative of the piece. Granted, some of the problem is the work itself, performed here in the standard 1976 completion by Deryck Cooke, but it is certainly possible to tie the parts together into a convincing argument, as Nézet-Séguin himself did in his 2015 recording with the Orchestre Métropolitain.
If the Philadelphians on stage were not at their best, neither were the New Yorkers in the audience. Before the Mahler began, the conductor seemed intent on waiting until every last listener was seated, staring down from the podium with unaccustomed irritation and prompting an enraged chorus of “Sit down!” from the crowd. There followed over the course of the symphony two cell phones, two watch alarms, a plaintive hearing aid, and one second-row-center patron who exited via the side door. And after Wednesday’s shenanigans, house management might consider appending a special notice about employees’ walkie-talkies to the traditional electronic device memorandum.