Philadelphia Orchestra program adds up to more than its parts

Wed Nov 14, 2018 at 1:05 pm
Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Hans van der Woerd

It’s one thing to present an odd program on your home turf. To bring the bizarre on tour, as Yannick Nézet-Séguin does routinely with his Philadelphia Orchestra, takes special confidence. The program that he brought to Carnegie Hall Tuesday night was typically eclectic, offering a Wagner overture, a premiere, a romantic rarity, and a light concert favorite.

When Nézet-Séguin was first announced as the Met’s new music director, a common question was how he would fare in Wagner, a crucial part of the rep for such a large company. Now that he’s proven himself a first-rate Wagnerian with highly regarded runs of Parsifal and Der fliegender Holländer, nothing seems more natural than his opening a concert with a sublime reading of the Prelude to Lohengrin. 

This was not a wholly conventional take: the Prelude began with its familiar shimmer, but Nézet-Séguin’s reading was unusually shapely, complementing the delicate texture with fullness of sound. To hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play this music was a thrill, bringing the warm power of their strings to a stunning climax.

Compare that with the core of the first half, the New York premiere of Mason Bates’s 2014 Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, inspired by a Borges work of the same title. Bates’s piece bears a resemblance to The Carnival of the Animals in more than just name: eleven sections, each portraying some magical creature or setting, bounce around the orchestra, featuring individual instruments and sections in turn, if somewhat less prominently than in Saint-Saëns’s playful classic. 

Bates’s writing here is tart, but fairly consonant by contemporary standards, getting some edge from its pace and fleet-footed wit, rather than through sharp tonality. Cheerfully capricious, Bates revels in impish details: “Sprite” tosses a single figure around among the violins, each getting a turn, exploring the physical space of the music in an unusual way. Vivid vignettes follow one after the other: “Night” has murmuring tremolos and tinkling percussion serving as the background for eerie, distant wailing in the winds.

Bates shows a talent for contrasting sonic ideas: one moment we hear the orchestra swelling to heroic heights, and the next a deep, primal rumbling of its depths. Anthology of Fantastic Zoology is a clever and entertaining piece, though, at about thirty minutes, perhaps a little longer than necessary. In spite of a tight, peppy performance by the Philadelphians, the final few scenes began to run out of steam.

Joyce DiDonato, the guest star of the evening, can make a remarkable performance out of just about anything, and she did precisely that with an unusual selection of Ernest Chausson, the Poème de l’amour et de la mer. This is a rich, romantic piece with grief at its core, and in Tuesday’s performance by DiDonato and the Philadelphians, Chausson’s smoldering music felt especially profound.

DiDonato’s mezzo isn’t one of enormous weight, but her tone is extraordinarily focused, landing like a dart the moment she begins to sing. Her phrases were lavishly crafted, yet she did not just settle for pretty sound; she sang with conviction, living on the dusky edge of her timbre in “La fleur des eaux.” After a bubbly opening, “La mort de l’amour,” quickly turns desolate, and DiDonato followed that shift exquisitely. The orchestra swelled and boiled in the outer movements, drawing a sharp contrast with the soft, brooding Interlude, which grew occasionally turbulent without breaking into a full storm.

Nézet-Séguin’s habit of placing the light “concert overture” material at the end of the program often sends audiences home with something to cheer about, but Ottorino Respighi’s Fountains of Rome seemed oddly anticlimactic. The fifteen-minute staple was ably played on Tuesday, featuring soft gurgling in the “Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn” followed by the blaring pomp of the “Triton Fountain at Morn,” and finally the gorgeous, silvery ripples of the “Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset.” But being neither a challenging piece nor as bombastic as its siblings, The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, Fountains made a forgettable coda to an otherwise excellent concert.

2 Responses to “Philadelphia Orchestra program adds up to more than its parts”

  1. Posted Nov 14, 2018 at 3:54 pm by Geo.

    Actually, given that the final section of ‘Fontane di Roma’ is a depiction of sunset, it makes for a fitting conclusion at the end of this program. I admit to bias, since ‘Fountains’ is by far my own favorite of Respighi’s “Roman Trilogy”. Precisely because it ends quietly, unlike the crowd-pleasing fortissimo juggernaut of ‘Pines’, ‘Fountains’ doesn’t get the respect that it deserves.

  2. Posted Nov 15, 2018 at 10:33 pm by Wayne

    I heard this same performance last week in Philadelphia. And I agree with Geo that “Fountains” was a fitting ending to this marvelous program. “Fountains” is a substantial orchestral work that allows the Philadelphia Orchestra to display a warm palette of color and texture. The virtuosic interweaving of winds, strings and brass was a marvelous ending to a very enjoyable evening.

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