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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Concert Review: Lamentations and Fabulous Triumph

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Messiah complex? Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo from the conductor's official website.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is riding high as the 2016-17 season gallops to a close. The French-Canadian conductor is in the middle of his first New York Wagner run, leading Der fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera, where he is scheduled to become the company's next music director in the 2020 season. On Tuesday night, Mr. Nézet-Séguin returned to his other job, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the last of their spring concerts at Carnegie Hall.

He and his fabulous Philadelphia forces brought a bold and carefully curated program, following the rarely heard Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah") by Leonard Bernstein with a Mozart piano concerto and Schumann's Symphony No. 2. Taken as a whole, these three works form a ladder from darkness to light, with Schumann's own triumphs over mental illness and Bach-like counterpoint crowning the evening in a bright blaze of C Major.

But that was yet to come. First, the "Jeremiah." This symphony was conceived when Bernstein was just 23, and its composition dates from the tumultuous period when the young composer-conductor was finding his feet in the music world. Indeed, Bernstein's coming-out party on Nov. 13, 1943 (where he pinch-hit in for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic and became an overnight celebrity) overshadowed the world premiere of this symphony in 1944.

The slow first movement ("Prophecy") opens with a phrase that recalls the shadowy start of Mahler's Seventh and the stabbing minor chords that are instantly recognizable from Siegfried's Funeral Music. From this familiar material. Bernstein forges something new and fresh, a slow and stately march that moves towards an inexorable climax. The second movement ("Profanation") is pure Bernstein, injecting Latin rhythms and maracas into a whirling, vibrant scherzo, reflecting the composer's mastery of form as well as his enthusiasm for jazz and tropical rhythms.

The third and final movement ("Lamentation") is the most extraordinary, using a Hebrew text taken from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sang these words of loss and bereavement with expressive power, riding waves of brass and strings expertly cued by Mr. Nézet-Séguin. The conductor's love of opera was readily apparent here, and stood this dramatic movement (which owes something to the orchestral songs of Shostakovich) to excellent effect.

Orchestra and conductor were joined by Radu Lupu, the eminent Romanian pianist who is one of the great purists of the classical style. Mr. Lupu and Mr. Nézet-Séguin offered a slow and meditative reading of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, with the conductor reveling in the slow minor-key textures and the spirit of musical experimentation that floods this, the darkest of Mozart's concertos. Of note, the glissando slides in the final variations of the last movement, played with otherworldly precision in the strings, and Mr. Lupu's consummate performance, using the soloist's own creations for the cadenza passages.

The second half built on the strengths of the first, with a stormy, passionate and yet detailed performance of the Schumann Symphony No. 2. Mr. Nézet-Séguin worked without a score, guiding his musicians when needed but also letting them play, trusting to the high level of musicianship that exists in the Philadelphia ranks. This relaxed approach paid dividends in the slow movement and the uplifting finale, in which Schumann conquers his demons and ends the work in a blaze of color and light. Every shout of "bravo!" was well deserved.

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