Supreme Coleman, Ravel and Debussy make a memorable Philly Orchestra season finale

Sat Jun 01, 2024 at 12:12 pm
Mitsuko Uchida performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Chris Lee

The Philadelphia Orchestra finished their season of visits to Carnegie Hall Friday with one of the most scintillating orchestral performances one has heard there since last year. Under artistic direct Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this same group disappointed in April in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7; Friday was much more than a mere return to form.

The program was well-chosen and strong; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Mitsuko Uchida, and after intermission the New York premiere of Valerie Coleman’s Concerto for Orchestra and Debussy’s La Mer. Even one-quarter into the 21st century, concerts of music that lies solely within the era of common historical and cultural memory are both too infrequent and immensely welcome. This one was also full of marvelous thinking and playing.

One felt something special with the opening of the piano concerto, which was tremendously subtle. Beautifully balanced and translucent, it was also quiet enough so that one reached out to it. Uchida is such a plainspoken player, not understated but instead expressing enormous depth with the feeling that she is using the exact amount and quality of means necessary, and nothing more. That was a superb approach to this great score, fully supported by Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

Everything was just enough and just right. Balances between piano and orchestra were excellent, and the colors from the latter were marvelous. Uchida’s touch and sonority were smooth and ringing—no surprise—but so were her rhythms and accents at the start of phrases, especially in the propulsive stretches of the opening movement.

There was a welcome thoughtfulness, not just a comfortable embrace of the jazz aesthetic from the orchestra, but the way Uchida and the orchestra outlined the brief phrase that mirrors Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Adagio was tremendous, with exquisite expressive playing from the woodwinds, and Uchida playing the long string of falling and rising scales and arpeggios with such ravishing, calm smoothness that one wanted the music to continue infinitely.

This combination of skill, charm, and thoughtfulness continued in the finale, where the energy was extroverted and fun, and also suave. Uchida sealed the first half with an encore of “Aveu” from Schumann’s Carnaval, as simple and lovely as can be.

Coleman’s Concerto for Orchestra is subtitled “Renaissance,” and is her fifth score for Philadelphia. One hopes this partnership will continue because her music is terrific and exemplary of an important style of American music-making. One hears so much contemporary mainstream American orchestral composing that is involved with the possibilities of instrumental sonorities and expresses an amiable eclecticism and a desire to shine a light on the composer’s place in society. Such music is always skillfully crafted and invariably bland, it accepts everything and says nothing.

Coleman’s style, on the other hand, is full of vigor and conviction, the urban, sociable modernism that grew after World War II. She has passionate and sincere things to say—in her own words the concerto “is centered on honoring and reflecting upon the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance”—but she doesn’t get lost in arguing specificity. The concerto, in three-movements based on the baroque origins of the tradition, is full of drama and trusts the listener to feel a sense of meaning without telling them what to feel.

The opening is moody, ringing percussion underneath a muted trumpet that has fragmented lines that seem to struggle with articulation in a way that is eloquent. It’s echoed by off-stage brass, and has a rich, noir feel. As colorful as everything else on this program, the music was deeply atmospheric because of the sense of expression, not just instrumental techniques.

With a combination of tonal harmonies, forward-moving rhythms, and a great sense of pace and form, the music leapt from the orchestra. The playing felt inspired, Bernstein-esque moments of physical pleasure kept pressing forward. This was the sound of music that comes from lived experience, and of musicians finding the driving power and inspiration from that.This is a piece that every American orchestra should play. Even with a first hearing, one felt that the performance was skillful and true to the music, as with the Ravel. 

This was also true for the fabulous La Mer. Nézet-Séguin can be over-energized and sometimes obliterate the music before him, but this performance was measured to perfection, everything on the quiet side until the most eruptive moments of the first and third movements.

Dynamics were supple, and there was a great sensuousness to the playing. Colors were perfect, and each orchestral detail was clear—things like rhythmic phrasing in the second violins and violas were completely transparent—but nothing was bogged down in mere examination. Orchestral timbres in the “Jeux de vagues” were gorgeous. In the “Dialogue du vent et de la mer,” the orchestra produce a kind of shining, flowing, liquid sound that seemed to pull away from the instruments and carrying the whole ensemble forward, like a raft on which they sat. One has never heard anything like it in concert before, and it was thrilling beyond description.

The Met Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and soprano Lisette Oropesa perform music of Jessie Montgomery, Mozart, and Brahms, 8 p.m., June 11 Carnegie Hall.

One Response to “Supreme Coleman, Ravel and Debussy make a memorable Philly Orchestra season finale”

  1. Posted Jun 02, 2024 at 9:26 am by Gary Armbrister

    I heard the concert and agree with Mr. Grella on all but the Coleman piece. Perhaps my ears are faulty, but I could find nothing in her piece except what he complains about in other contemporary music: instrumental sonorities and amiable eclecticism which ends up saying nothing. I found it empty, and the contrast with such an extraordinary masterpiece like “La Mer” which followed it made me embarrassed for the composer.

    I have liked other Coleman pieces, but this one had nothing to say, at least to me. Amorphous. Perhaps a second or third hearing might change my mind, but, in this case, I doubt it.

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