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Friday, May 15, 2015

Concert Review: Back on Track

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Parler à la main: Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Image © 2015 Fondation Jasmin Roy from a YouTube video
It hasn't been an easy week for the Philadelphia Orchestra. That city is still grieving in the wake of an Amtrak derailment that resulted in seven dead and hundreds of injuries. Despite the travel issues, the ensemble and its irrepressible music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin commuted to Carnegie Hall on Thursday for their final New York concert of the 2015 season. This program featured two works premiered by the orchestra (one old, one new) and pianist Emanuel Ax playing Beethoven.

The concert opened with Mr. Muhly's Mixed Messages, a new 11-minute work for large orchestra with an expanded percussion section. This is the second work written for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and part of the orchestra's ongoing commitment to new music under the leadership of Mr. Nézet-Séguin.  Mr. Muhly, the 33-year old New England native and Lower East Side resident, has had two major operas (Two Boys and Dark Sisters) premiered in New York, and is an important voice in current American music.

Mixed Messages was at once playful, eclectic and occasionally fretful, with a steady minimalist pulse that reflected his apprenticeship with Philip Glass. The forward drive was punctuated by Stravinsky-like blurts of percussion and brass. Melodic ideas were handily tossed from player to player, with themes transformed effortlessly from strings to woodwinds to tuned percussion. The pulse drove relentlessly forward, shifting momentum and occasionally slowing before reaching its denouement. In the middle of its final peroration, the orchestra suddenly ground to a halt.

Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto is a series of musical arguments between piano and orchestra, and between contrasting thematic ideas that need to somehow reach a concordance. Here, Mr. Nézet-Séguin offered the orchestral part in a bombastic opening statement, dovetailing with the delicate entrance of Mr. Ax's piano laying the exact same music in a totally different manner. The orchestra continued its emotional assault against the sensibility of the piano, with the soloist using extra muting and pedal to make his side of the debate appear civilized and restrained.

The central slow movement was lush, with Mr. Ax making the gentle first entrance and triggering one of those song-like movements that are characteristic of this composer's fertile middle period. The finale contained the last stages of the debate, starting with a simple song of chords that was expanded into complex arpeggios with each variation. It climaxed in a long and playful cadenza for the soloist. In this, Mr. Ax showed his own sense of humor, inserting the final Rondo theme from Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 and drawing a smile from the conductor and a chuckle from the audience. Conductor and pianist brought the coda home together, their argument at last ended.

At the start of the second half, Mr. Nézet-Séguin prepared to give the downbeat for the first solemn notes of the Symphony No. 3 by Serge Rachmaninoff. Then, stragglers entered Stern Auditorium, making for their seats. He stopped, turned, and regarded them for a moment. Then, he sat down on the side of the podium, knees drawn under his chin like a little boy on the stairs. As the latecomers trickled in, the audience muttered, murmured, laughed and applauded his decision. He stood up, looked behind him and sat down on the other side of the podium. Finally, he rose and got to work. As the first notes played, two more people tottered to their seats.

Those notes were worth the wait. Rachmaninoff's Third was written in 1935 at the height of the composer's powers, and followed a 30-year gap of voluntary exile from Russia, touring and concertizing around the globe. The work was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was written with this orchestra's signature sound firmly in mind. Its first movement is another musical argument, between a bucolic, vaguely American-sounding folk theme (it is actually based on a Russian folk song) and the Dies Irae, the descending bass motif that signifies the wrath of God in medieval church music.

The Philadelphians played this three-movement symphony like it was written for them. (It was.) The brass players injected soul into the horn calls of the opening Lento-Allegro as a steady and deep carpet of strings unrolled for the woodwinds and percussion to play on. The central movement is a hybrid--part solemn Adagio and part manic Scherzando with orchestral mood-shifts that may show an influence of Gustav Mahler. The Dies Irae popped up throughout, hiding most often in the double bass chug and the mutterings of the cello section. The fast finale is like a Troika ride through Hell, perhaps representing the composer's nostalgia for Russia and characteristic and pervasive pessimism. The final bars though were relatively optimistic, with the wrath of God temporarily staved off for another day.

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