Mixed Schubert and “Marnie” without words from Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphians

Sat Mar 09, 2019 at 2:48 pm
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Hans van der Woerd

Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. File photo: Hans van der Woerd

Friday’s concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall was brought to you by: Young Men on the Move.

Franz Schubert was in his mid-twenties when, after two unsuccessful outings in the opera house, he turned back to instrumental music, hoping eventually to compose a symphony worthy of consideration alongside of those of Beethoven. At 28, he achieved that goal with his Symphony No. 9 in C major.

At 22, Felix Mendelssohn was literally moving all over Europe on his grand tour, sightseeing, sketching, conducting, playing the piano, composing, and wowing audiences with fluent technique and aching lyricism in his shiny new Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25.

Nico Muhly, the senior citizen of this group at 37, had better luck than Schubert with operas. Marnie, his second commission by the Metropolitan Opera, was mounted last year with a stellar cast and rich visuals, exciting much comment pro and con. He repackaged some of the opera’s more arresting orchestral moments as Liar, Suite from Marnie, which received its New York premiere Wednesday.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was 35 when he was named music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2010. His career continues on an upward arc, adding the music directorship of the Metropolitan Opera this season. His still-youthful energy and flair for the dramatic were evident in Wednesday’s performances.

Tall and lanky with a shock of sandy hair, the 23-year-old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki cuts a Cliburn-like figure onstage, but without the Texan’s lush piano sound. Still, on Wednesday he met the Mendelssohnian standard for playing like the wind and singing a pretty tune.

Top composers, top orchestra, top music stars of the moment—and not an old codger in sight, except in the seats.

Reviewers of Marnie seemed to agree that, while Muhly has a way to go as a musical dramatist, he wrote very dramatic music. The word “soundtrack” came up a lot, and as Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians launched into the suite’s sweeping first pages Wednesday night, then moved without a break from scene to scene, the imagined action glowed in Technicolor.

Winston Graham’s 1961 psychological novel about an identity-shifting, sexually-inhibited kleptomaniac was adapted on film by Alfred Hitchcock with Tippi Hedren in the title role, and it proved a ripe subject for opera as well. On Wednesday, Muhly’s score seethed with conflict, both the actual one between the coerced-into-marriage Marnie and her overbearing yet protective husband—represented respectively by solo oboe and trombone–and the character’s inner torments arising from psychic injury in childhood.

Conducting without a baton, Nézet-Séguin expertly mixed Muhly’s contemporary colors—thrusting strings, blaring brass, various booms and pings of percussion—to create sonic environments as changeable as the disturbed protagonist herself. The audience greeted the piece, and the composer onstage, with enthusiastic applause.

The piano concerto’s golden age from Schumann and Brahms to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff was preceded by the dark ages around 1830, illuminated only by the two concertos of Chopin. Happily, the hundreds of note-spinning concertos by touring virtuosi—Pixis, Kalkbrenner, et al.—have gone to their reward. Their hyperactive style acquired some class in a few survivors from that era, Weber’s Conzertstück and Mendelssohn’s two concertos.

Still, it’s hard to play the latter’s G minor Concerto, the fast movements anyway, without sounding like a sewing machine. To do so would involve backing off the tempo a bit and bringing out the nice shapes and harmonic inflections in all that digital passagework. The music actually sounds faster and more brilliant that way, but that point is a tough sell to today’s young keyboard athletes.

Pianist Lisiecki opened the piece by firing a salvo of brittle octaves, then taking off at top speed in a whir of sixteenth notes. This necessitated a drastic slowing down for the lyrical second theme, not indicated in the score and disruptive to the movement’s flow. The pianist’s best moments came in softer, lighter passages that sparkled or rippled appealingly.

Opening the Andante, the Philadelphia cellos gave a masterclass in big, beautiful phrasing, and Lisiecki proved an apt pupil, projecting well and developing a rhapsodic freedom as the movement went on. This movement was the expressive high point of the concerto performance, and perhaps the whole evening.

In the finale, tempos were rushed and the orchestra sounded somewhat helter-skelter, but there was digital fun to be had in Lisiecki’s fizzy leggiero playing. Enough fun, in fact, to bring him back for an encore, a tender, swaying rendition of Mendelssohn’s song without words, “Venetian Gondola Song.”

Novelties by Muhly and Mendelssohn are welcome, but one looks forward to the distinguished visitors’ take on the classics. However, one wasn’t looking forward to the out-of-time horn call that led off Schubert’s symphony, or to the rhythmic vagueness and uncoordinated wind playing that it presaged. Still batonless, and not indicating a beat in some softer passages, Nézet-Séguin seemed to cede control of the first movement to the players, unwisely in this case.

In the Andante con moto, a steady tick-tick of staccato strings provided the moto and kept time for the oboe and clarinet, which tended to slip out of time when the ticking wasn’t there. The conductor appeared to be calling for more lightness and grace than the orchestra was delivering. But the developmental episode at mid-movement brought silky string sound and a smooth flow.

In the Scherzo, Nézet-Séguin apparently translated “vivace” as “headlong.” At this breakneck tempo, the strings didn’t articulate the eighth-note phrases clearly and the woodwinds tended to fall behind. An un-indicated slowing down was again necessary for the Trio, whose cantering rhythm still sounded somewhat pushed.

In the finale, however, the orchestra righted itself and put on a terrific show of both speed and articulation, driven by another Schubertian metronome, the steady pulse of repeated half notes. The orchestra’s playing seemed to match the conductor’s gestures at last, and if it all seemed to emphasize kinetic excitement over fullness of orchestral tone, the sound of a top orchestra in full command of its faculties was worth it.

Carnegie Hall presents the New York debut of pianist Beatrice Rana in works of Chopin, Ravel, and Stravinsky 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.


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