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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Concert Review: Of Trolls, Swans and Indeterminate Obstacles

The Philadelphia Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
That's right! Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo © 2015 by Chris Lee.
This was a concert that almost didn't happen.

On Monday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra agreed to a new one-year contract for its musicians, just one night before they were scheduled to play their first concert of the 2015 season at Carnegie Hall. With a 3% pay raise on the books and light at the end of a decade marked by bankruptcy and labor disputes, the ensemble arrived at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, to offer a refreshing if old-fashioned program of Grieg, Bartók and Sibelius under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Edvard Grieg's Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt is so well known that it has eclipsed its original purpose as incidental music for the Henrik Ibsen play of the same name. It is often relegated to amateur (or amateurish) orchestras or heard in the  background of commercials for restaurant chains or car companies. This performance went a long way toward reclaiming this seminal work for the concert stage, with Mr. Nézet-Séguin finding fresh ideas in its familiar pages.

The Suite began with Morning Mood, a glorious sunrise for solo flute, winds and strings, unrolling with the stalwart Philly cellos to the fore. The Death of Åse was searching and chromatic, a simple folk tune transformed by post-Wagnerian descending chords. The following Anitra's Dance was played with sprightly feet. Only In The Hall of the Mountain King seemed rushed as Mr. Nezet-Seguin chose flash and speed, often at the expense of rhythmic clarity.

Clarity was the watch-word for the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2, played here with the orchestra supporting soloist Gil Shaham. Mr. Shaham and Mr. Nézet-Séguin collaborated closely, spooling out the complex set of variations on the opening five-note theme. In an ingenuous design, these variations form the body of this three-movement work. The notes are inverted, retrograded, re-intervaled and otherwise reworked, spawning a flood of musical ideas that burst forth in crystalline arches of sound, with a subtle and delicate accompaniment from the expanded orchestra.

Mr. Shaham played dazzling figurations, dexterous stops and arpeggios that elevated the level of anticipation as the movement climaxed in a brief excursion into atonality with violin and winds both playing a tone-row before diving back into more familiar waters. The slower middle movement, with its gentle folk-like melody provided respite between the big outer movements, with further subtle accompaniment from the orchestra.

The fast finale brought home the ferocity of Bartók's ideas and the full conception of his variation process. As the variations became more complex, Mr. Shaham and the orchestra moved toward a recurrence of the twelve-tone idea from the first movement before ending the work with a final transformation of its main thematic idea. Afterward, Mr. Shaham gave a heartfelt Bach encore, played directly to Mr. Nézet-Séguin who perched on the podium to listen.

The conductor resumed his place for the Sibelius Symphony No. 5, presented here in its familiar three-movement revised form. Mr. Nézet-Séguin adhered closely to the work's tempo markings, with the orchestra making thematic statements in the first movement that were resolved to dramatic effect in the finale. Skipping winds, eloquent brass and strong rhythmic playing from the strings were the order of the day here.

The slow movement, with its plucky woodwind theme and plucked string accompaniment was built to a grand climax from very little indeed. The finale, with its portrait of swans flying majestically over a serene Finnish lake, was effectively divided into two sections.  Mr. Nézet-Séguin led a fast opening for the strings into the familiar five-note "swan" figure for divided horns that is this work's signature theme. Although the brass threatened to drown the winds and strings at this point, the orchestra was back in balance for the wind intermezzo and the slower closing bars, ending in a series of thunderous unison chords.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.