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Monday, April 28, 2014

Concert Review: The Youth Movement

Jan Lisiecki plays Mozart in Philadelphia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo by Jessica Griffin © 2014 The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Everyone (well, almost everyone) likes Mozart. That's the rationale behind the Philadelphia Orchestra's three-concert mini-festival by the  at Verizon Hall, A Mozart Celebration. On Friday afternoon, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the second of these performances, featuring a traditional concert format: opera overture, piano concerto and one of the late Mozart symphonies.. On display: the sparkle and clarity of this famous orchestra and the prodigal ability of pianist Jan Lisiecki.

The concert opened with the overture to Cosí Fan Tutte, the risqué opera that marked the end of Mozart's collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Drawing the bulk of its melodic ideas from two sung phrases (one from Le Nozze di Figaro and the other from the very end of the opera itself, this is one of Mozart's most engaging curtain-raisers. Mr. Nézet-Séguin let the woodwinds make their own statements in brief solos, while urging the strings forward in a mad dash.

Mozart did not invent the keyboard concerto, but his mature output in that genre (mostly written to provide repertory for his own concert career) was instrumental in elevating the form to its place among the most revered of musical forms. The Concerto No. 22, performed by Mr. Lisiecki and the orchestra is among his most ambitious concertos, written on a large scale that foretold the later explorations of the 19th century.

In this new century, there have been doubts about the future of concert performances--the graying of audiences, the financial crises of large corporate donors and even the bankruptcy of major cultural institutions. Mr. Lisiecki, who signed his recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon four years ago (when he turned 15) is a symbol of hope, a raw, gangly figure bursting with energy and talent. As he took his place at the piano, his gangly frame seeming ill-fitted to the height of the bench. The tops of his knees brushed the undercarriage of the Steinway, but that awkwardness vanished when the work started.

Working sans baton, Mr. Nézet-Séguin led the dramatic opening figure, with the work's initial musical ideas in somber but bold colors. Then came the pianist's first entrance, a quiet echo of that motto theme with only hints of the thrilling playing that was to come. Those thrills came in the cadenzas (Mr. Lisiecki used the ones written by Paul Badora-Skoda) revealing a young, fiery talent unafraid to meet the work head-on and interpret it in his own way.

The second movement was better, with Mr. Lisiecki moving to the forefront and plauying in concordance with the superb Philadelphia winds and strings. The finale was pure energy and youthful enthusiasm, with Mr. Lisiecki's big fingers a blur as he tore through the slow-fast-slow movement. This was energetic but never slapdash. Throughout, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proved a sure and even subtle accompanist, coloring in the lines drawn by the piano part and working in tight concordance with the young soloist.

The second half of the concert featured Mr. Nézet-Séguin leading Symphony No. 39, the first of the three works that make up Mozart's final statement in the genre. This was energetic, arch Mozart, a happy marriage between Mr. Nézet-Séguin's modern performance sensibilities and the old-school Philadelphia sound. Through the four movements, (and especially in the lilting minuet) the sound was sweet and crisp in tone, despite the diminished size of the ensemble.

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