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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Concert Review: "Young Gun" Nézet-Séguin Takes Alice Tully Hall

Yannick Nézet-Séguin in action.
On Monday night, a free concert by the Juilliard Orchestra gave New Yorkers a chance to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin, taking a break from his duties leading Don Carlo at the Met. The 35-year-old French-Canadian maestro, who is scheduled to take over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2011 showed his conducting chops with a bold program of 20th century music.

First up was the Third Piano Concerto by Serge Prokofiev. Alan Woo played the solo part, a second-year Juilliard student whose lanky build and long fingers recalled another Russian composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff. Like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev was a virtuoso performer as well as a composer. The "Prokofiev Three" is not a long work, but it requires nerves of steel and fingers to match. Mr. Woo displayed both.

In addition to noble themes and slow, elegaic melodies, there are passages in the first and third movements when the soloist has to play with both hands in the same octave, one on the white keys and the other trilling on the black. Mr. Woo met these individual challenges with assured technical skill. Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted the large student orchestra with gusto, connecting with the soloist and driving the orchestra forward through the three movements.

The second half of the program featured the original version of Maurice Ravel's ballet score Daphnis et Chloë.. Written in 1910, the ballet was later adapted into a pair of orchestral suites, which are popular concert item. But it is rare to hear the work as Ravel originally intended it, complete with a wordless, melismatic mixed chorus that adds the texture of human voices to the already enormous orchestra.

Commanding the Dessoff Choirs along with the expanded Juilliard Orchestra, Mr. Nézet-Séguin led an exciting performance of the work, maintaining Ravel's narrative drive despite the absence of dancers from the stage. The student orchestra responded well to his direction, producing ferocious rhythms for the work's central "Barbarian Dance" and dreamy textures for the romance of the work's titular characters.

Exceptional performances from the principal horn, English horn and alto flute made this Daphnis an immersive, thrilling experience. The tricky passage at the start of Part III, where the strings enter in a 10-part ensemble while removing their mutes is just one example of the precise nature of Ravel's vision. Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought the final pages of the work home with a mighty climax, a thunderous wall of sound that belies the impression that impressionistic music always means "quiet."

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