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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Concert Review: The Future Has Arrived

Yannick Nézet-Séguin returns to Philadelphia.
A bright future: Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
The Philadelphia Orchestra is making a big deal about Yannick Nezet-Seguin's return to the Kimmel Center this weekend. And they should. The young Québecois conductor is the orchestra's Music Director Designate, the savior that should bring this troubled ensemble back to eminence and full houses at Verizon Hall.

Friday's matinee concert, featured Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor and and Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. A conservative program? Sure. But these concerts are about establishing a baseline identity for Mr. Nézet-Séguin, as careful custodian of the classics. There will be time later for the Scriabin, Schoenberg and (maybe) Shchedrin, names that still shake up a listening base that becomes skittish when confronted by anything written after 1900.

The concert opened with the evergreen Mozart. The Philadelphians filtered this familiar piece through their unique "Philly sound", a rich blend of deep cellos and woodwinds accented by horns throughout. Mr. Nézet-Séguin made this music sound fresh, bringing out the delicate counterpoint of the opening and emphasizing the sardonic humor in the fourth movement's sudden, jarring shift to a minor key.

The audience settled in for the German Requiem as if it were a church sercice in itself. This was the work that "broke" Brahms as a major composer. He chose seven settings of Martin Luther's German translations of certain Bible verses, creating a vernacular religious service to honor the dead. But where the Catholic Mass for the Dead breathes hellfire and damnation, the Luther texts offer comfort and consolation to the bereaved.

Much of that comfort was provided by the superb choral singers of the Westminster Symphonic Choir. They combined with the orchestra to create a thick, rich sonic texture throughout,  from the soothing passages of the opening movement to the thunderous declaration of the kingdom of the Lord in the Sixth. Mr. Nézet-Séguin showed his skills as a director of choral music, leading the large ensemble through its paces with bends and twists of baton, hands, and torso.

The performance featured two strong vocal soloists. Dorothea Roschmann rose to prominence singing Mozart. Her high, supple soprano was well suited as a heavenly voice in the fifth movement. Matthias Goerne, often heard with Ms. Roschmann in Die Zauberflöte,  remains a fully involved singer. He sang the lengthy baritone orations with fervor, and remained involved even when tacit, occasionally lip-synching with the choral parts.

This week, Broad Street is decorated with banners featuring the young conductor. The orchestra's posters feature Mr. Nézet-Seguin and current Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit, paired in an image that might be called Duelling Batons. As the little white stick is passed from the older maestro to the younger conductor, it could be argued that the future in Philadelphia is bright, indeed.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats