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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.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Concert Review: The Hetaera and the Philosophers

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo © 2017 The Berlin Philharmonic.
The Philadelphia Orchestra has always occupied an important place among orchestras that visit New York. They are near neighbors, and their regular appearances at Carnegie Hall are a linchpin of that august venue's concert programming. In recent years, the announcement that Philadelphia's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be assuming that same post at the Metropolitan Opera has only served to raise the profile of these concerts.

For this concert, his orchestra's second appearance at the Hall this season, Mr. Nézet-Séguin brought a diverse program. There was a world premiere by a major contemporary composer. It was followed by a relative rarity penned by centenary celebrant Leonard Bernstein. Finally, there was an early symphony by Jean Sibelius, a composer that Philadelphia became closely associated with in the Eugene Ormandy era.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Mr. Adès' Orchestral Suite based on music from the composer's first opera Powder Her Face. This opera, written when Mr. Adès was just 24, tells the story of a Duchess, an English noblewoman who skips tea in the afternoon for a life of debauchery, and hot sexy trysts with an endless parade of lovers. The work chronicles her journey to self-destruction, with the difficult music accompanied by chamber-sized orchestration. It has been mounted around the world with great success, and has enjoyed runs at New York City Opera and Opera Philadelphia.

For this work, Mr. Adès expanded his orchestral palette to the full symphonic band, retelling the Duchess' downward spiral over eight movements. Narration was replaced by  fortissimo blasts of sound and free appropriations of 20th century dance music. With the brass and winds substituting for voices and the ensemble thundering through a series of dissonant musical orgasms, this work proved to be an exercise in self-indulgent orchestration. Not even the Philadelphians' superb playing could dispel the feeling that like the Duchess' empty bedroom conquests, this piece felt hollow inside.

Serenade (A Symposium) is the closest thong to a violin concerto in Leonard Bernstein's catalogue. In less inspired hands, this multi-movement casting of the dialogue between soloist and orchestra can come off as the worst kind of academic pretense. However, it was quickly apparent that the right hands to play this piece were those of violinist Hilary Hahn. Ms. Hahn and Mr. Mr. Nézet-Séguin were absolutely inspired here, with her full robust tone giving voice to these dusty Greek figures and his nimble conducting bringing the bright marble of the orchestration to its full luster.

Ms. Hahn's playing has evolved over the years. No longer is she the ingenue of her instrument: she has become a seasoned, veteran performer with a voice of her own. That was readily apparent in the expansive slow movement, which held the audience (and the orchestra) rapt. Her encore was just as spectacular: a Bach movement played with playful, nimble grace as her bow and strings gave the listener a glimpse of what can only be described as a dance of eternity.

Sibelius' First Symphony stands apart from his following six. In this work, the Finnish composer unpacks all of his important themes in a long clarinet solo before launching into a bold and decisive Allegro. Mr. Nézet-Séguin led with subtle nods and encouraging waves of the arm, drawing this great rolling tide of sound from his players. They love playing this music and it showed, as the orchestra moved into the following Andante.

The Scherzo is not a dancing celebration but music of angst and serious philosophical insight, displaying the influence of Tchaikovsky on the young composer but also delving into the deep melancholy that informs the national character of the Finns. It was followed by the free and fantastical finale, where Sibelius seems to rewrite the orchestral rule book over the course of this movement. Mr. Nézet-Séguin and his players drew out the unsettling final chords, drawing a dark curtain with the grand roll of timpani, a few brass chords and two uncertain, plucked final notes.

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