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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Concert Review: Dynamite from Fairyland

Yannick Nézet-Séguin returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin brought the Philadelphia Orchestra back to Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Jan Regan for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The Philadelphia Orchestra are regular visitors to the great stage of Carnegie Hall. Tuesday night saw the band's first New York appearance this season with music director Yannick Nézet-Seguin at the helm. The dynamic young Quebeçois conductor is one of the genuine podium stars of this new century, drawing the focus of New Yorkers since he accepted the job of successor to James Levine (starting in 2020) at the Metropolitan Opera. His loyal troops were given a solid program that played to their strengths: a Prokofiev concerto bookended by two major works from Maurice Ravel.

The first Ravel piece was a comparative concert rarity: his exquisite four-movement orchestration of a larger suite for piano, Le Tombeau de Couperin. This work is an extensive homage to the  composer Francois Couperin, one of the most important creators of the glittering French Baroquem but a name known today only to period performance experts, conservatory students and certain music journalists. This suite features four of the six completed works, bridging Ravel's mastery of the large orchestra with Couperin's more spare, elegant writing for the keyboard.

In each these pieces, Mr. Nézet-Séguin emphasized a transparency of texture, with agile woodwinds capering ear a bubbling texture of plucked and bowed strings. The conductor embraced a different tonal world for each piece, from the upward courses of the opening Prelude to the dense, harpsichord-like rhythms of the following Forlane. A sprightly Menuet seduced the ear and the Rigadon allowed the players to cut loose, albeit in a tight and very disciplined way.

Next up was the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Benjamin Beilman, a young artist who came armed with a Stradivarius and a close working partnership with Mr. Nézet-Séguin. This is a transitory piece for the Russian composer, begun before the Bolshevik Revolution and finished as the composer completed a globe-girdling flight from the Communists that saw him eventually land in Paris. It bridges his early and middle styles, with an icy, glittering texture that offers maximum display opportunites for the solo instruments, with hushed passages that challenge members of the orchestra as well.

An expansive slow movement opens this concerto, gradually building in momentum and intensity as Mr. Beilman negotiated tricky string skips, fleet arpeggios and complicated bowing maneuvers that made the strings of his Strad dialogue with each other against a bubbling orchestral accompaniment. But that was just setup for the hurtling Vivicissimo, where the conductor and his soloist engaged in a merry musical chase as if trying to catch each other's musical tails.

This is exposed stuff, with Mr. Beilman playing with great technical skill and a cool head, accompanied subtly and poetically by the thoroughly professional Philadelphia forces. The momentum and excitement carried into the fast final movement. It was followed by an inspired choice of encore, the final movement from Eugene Ysäye's Sonata No. 4, which draws on ideas inspired by Bach's own writing for the solo instrument before launching the solo instrument to a dizzying and rarified height.

The second half of the program featured the complete Daphnis et Chlöe with the choral part sung by the Westminster forces under the direction of Joe Miller. Here, Mr. Nézet-Séguin played fast and loose with tempos in the big sequences, drawing charming rubato passages from his strings and wind solos and whipping up an appropriate storm for the big sequences. The pirate attack in the second part of the ballet whirled and bubbled with plank-walking fury, and the grand finale was an exercise in brutal rhythmic precision, with Yannick swinging his orchestra with the force of an angry Greek deity. Good stuff.

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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.