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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Concert Review: Sailing Toward Elysium

Yannick Nézet-Séguin opens his Beethoven cycle.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is starting his second season at the head
of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Photo by Chris Lee © 2013 The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin has opened his second season at the helm of this orchestra, hoping to steer the ensemble out of the troubled waters causes by the recent financial crisis and the 2011 bankruptcy proceeding that shocked the music world.

With Friday's matinée concert (the first afternoon performance of the young 2013 season) Mr. Nézet-Séguin staked his claim to one of the great works of the orchestra-choral repertory. Leading Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (yes that's the one with the "Ode to Joy") is difficult as it is. Mr. Nézet-Séguin chose to couple this epic work with two more short choral works, upping the stakes considerably.

At this concert, the gamble paid off. Mr. Nézet-Séguin opened the concert with a Beethoven rarity. Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage is a brief two-part cantata, a setting of two nautical poems by Goethe. The Westminster Symphonic Choir opened the work with a hushed depiction of a becalmed sea--with nervous figurations in the strings indicating the anxiety of the sailors. The sudden atonal upswell at the end of the first poem set the listener up for the release that was to come, an exuberant allegro conducted with drive and energy by Mr. Nézet-Séguin.

The second work on the program was the Bright Mass With Canons, a short setting of the Latin liturgy (omitting the Credo ) by the American composer Nico Muhly. Originally composed for voices and organ alone (and first played at New York's St. Thomas Church) Mr. Muhly's piece appeared here in a new orchestration created especially for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The results are aurally fascinating, a combination of sparse strings, tuned percussion and voices, setting the text in a complex series of overlapping vocal canons. The composer is playing with the sonorities created by the overlay of different words and phrases, and the instrumental support only increased the power and beauty of this brief work.

Beethoven's Ninth needs little introduction, but here's one anyway. A cornerstone of the repertory, the first symphony to incorporate the human voice successfully, and a deeply humanistic summation of the composer's entire career that managed to break new ground and expand the symphonic form in ways that the composer's predecessors never imagined. At 70 minutes, with difficult choral parts and four soloists, it is a stern test of any conductor.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin's Beethoven favored brisk, energetic tempos and a preference for textual clarity rather than epic sweep. The word "Mozartean" might sum up his approach, with woodwind and horn parts clearly and cleanly played. The second movement showed the especial tone quality of the Philadelphia players in the best possible light, as the swell of cellos and carefully modulated timpani drove Beethoven's wild Scherzo onward.

The four soloists (soprano Twyla Robinson (a late replacement for the ill Christine Brewer), mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Christian Elsner and bass Shenyang) joined the choir before the start of the third movement, making their way down to the four empty seats just above the orchestra players. The long Adagio followed, with the bassoon leading a slow, mournful song that turned sunny thanks to bright illumination by the high strings and trumpet. Mr. Nézet-Séguin played the last two movements attacca, launching the famous finale before players and audience had time to contemplate the full meaning of that mysterious third movement.

There was something slightly unsatisfying in the crash and chaos that opened the famous finale, but Mr. Nézet-Séguin compensated quickly with a performance that brought out the best qualities of both orchestra and chorus. Once Shenyang stood up for the first cry of "O Freuuuuuuunde!" the movement simply took off, with conductor, soloists, choir and orchestra leading a slightly mad, venue-shaking celebration filled with orchestral muscle and emotional resolve. If this Ninth is indeed the start of a complete Beethoven cycle by this orchestra under Mr. Nézet-Séguin, we're looking forward to the first eight.

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