Philadelphia Orchestra, Hahn excel in wide-ranging program at Carnegie Hall

Sat Dec 09, 2017 at 2:46 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

Like a student facing a jury at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia Orchestra came into Carnegie Hall Friday night with three pieces about as different from each other as they could be, and walked out with an A in each one.

Some programming genius can probably explain what the common thread is that links the orchestral suite from Thomas Adés’s opera Powder Her Face, Bernstein’s Serenade (“after Plato’s Symposium”) for Violin and Orchestra, and Sibelius’s First Symphony. To this listener, Friday’s concert was a testimony to the fertile imagination of this orchestra and its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as they faced three entirely different interpretive challenges.

British composer Adés made a sensational operatic debut in 1995 with his reality-based tale of a social-climber-turned-Duchess in the 1950s and her tabloid-ready sexual antics. The music was practically the definition of “postmodern,” a farrago of waltzes, foxtrots and tender and fierce arias, all seen in a funhouse mirror, set for a Stravinskian pit band of 15 players.

The composer later made a three-movement suite from the opera, and finally, with a co-commission from Carnegie Hall and premiering earlier this year, a much-expanded suite in eight movements for large orchestra. 

When this latter version made its New York bow Friday, the change of scale made it feel a little as if L’Histoire du soldat had been turned into a Straussian tone poem. But the Philadelphians went at it en masse, vigorously rendering Adés’s parodic swoops and sneering glissandos on the large canvas. The composer’s skill and fresh orchestral effects sustained interest throughout the suite’s half hour.

He could, however, have taken a lesson from Strauss in contrast between movements.  The eight sections were composed continuously, without a break, and not clearly differentiated in character, so that even Paul Griffiths’ detailed program notes on the action accompanying each movement couldn’t prevent this listener from losing his place in the piece.  It’s hard to be “in the moment” when you’re groping for clues as to where you are.

There was no such problem Friday with the five vivid movements of Bernstein’s Serenade. Here, one was better off ignoring the composer’s program of Greek philosophers orating at a banquet (apparently added rather late in the composing process anyway) and just grooving to soloist Hilary Hahn’s warm, tuned-in performance and her glove-like fit with Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

Bernstein is said to have been especially proud of this piece, and it wasn’t hard to see why as Hahn channeled Lenny in all his most attractive traits: the tenderness, the passion, the impish humor. From the soft, arresting opening solo to the dazzling wit of the brief “Eryximachus” scherzo to the eloquent cadenza and hushed coda of the penultimate “Agathon” adagio, Hahn covered all the expressive bases with ease and grace. 

Hilary Hahn performed Bernstein's Serenade Friday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Peter Miller

Hilary Hahn. Photo: Peter Miller

Her tone slimmed to a silver thread for the delicate “Aristophanes” allegretto and swelled to match the throbbing Philadelphia strings in the “Socrates: Alcibiades” finale. Eye contact at close range kept violinist and conductor together as Hahn playfully bent the finale’s rhythms, dancing, insinuating, pausing to reflect, and finally dashing to the brilliant close.

Hahn, a renowned Bach interpreter, responded to her well-earned ovation with a lively solo encore, the Gigue from that composer’s Partita No. 3 in E major, BWV 1006.

If Bernstein’s orchestral idiom owed something to Stravinsky and jazz, that of Sibelius seemed to well up from the depths of the Baltic Sea. Low brass and timpani pummeled the ear, violins barked urgently on their lowest strings, and overlapping waves of crescendo rolled in.  Nézet-Séguin and his players proved masters of this muscular style as well, sensing when to take stock and when to press ahead, stretching crescendos for maximum impact at the climax.

Each of the middle movements had its marked character—no small thing in the case of the Andante, by turns introverted, tenderly expressive, and brutishly brassy, and yet somehow held together in Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation. The third movement, a characteristic Sibelius polar-bear scherzo, contrasted driving, sunlit sections with deep shadows in the trio.

In the finale, another fantasia of widely diverse materials and tempos, Nézet-Séguin found the narrative pulse through it all, eventually bringing soaring strings and brass together in a long, glorious final crescendo. This time, the ovation was all for Nézet-Séguin and his orchestra, and again well earned.

The next classical music presentation of Carnegie Hall will be “Janine Jansen and Friends,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday.  The Philadelphia Orchestra will return to Carnegie Hall with violinist Janine Jansen in works by Michel van der Aa and Rachmaninoff, March 13, 2018.; 212-247-7800.

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