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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, April 11, 2018

Concert Review: Another Philly Championship

Yannick and company rock Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the controls of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Photo by Jessica Griffin for the Philadelphia Orchestra © 2018 courtesy Carnegie Hall.
It's not always easy to make the cities of New York and Philadelphia see eye to eye. And yet, that was the mission of the Pennsylvania city's most famous export on Tuesday night, as the Philadelphia Orchestra and their music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who is also the newly crowned music director of the Metropolitan Opera) played the last of this season's subscription concerts at Carnegie Hall.

This was an ambitious program, with the first half focused on choral music. It opened with Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. One of the good things about Bernstein's 100th birthday is that it has provided an opportunity to expose listeners to his lesser known works. This choral setting of texts from the Book of Psalms is almost like a religious, Hebraic answer to big choral works like Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

The Bernstein model, however is more flexible, with brilliant melismatic passages and massed writing for blocks of voices. A tender solo for boy treble packed an emotional wallop, as did the rising, swelling plea for peace and sanity that formed the climax of the work. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, who have enjoyed a long and successful partnership with their Broad Street neighbors, proved ideal interpreters of this powerful and under-performed piece.

However, even the heavenly aspirations of the Bernstein work paled next to Philadelphia Voices, a sprawling and ambitious cantata from the pen of composer Tod Machover. Voices adds three additional choirs to the stage, and is written for large orchestra and added voice samples and electronics. It is an attempt to encompass the whole of the City of Brotherly Love in twenty-five minutes, an ambitious tour in the time it takes to walk from Center City to 30th Street Station.

The vibrant energy of the Philly streets filled the air of Carnegie Hall, with the work incorporating samples and interviews from the people of that great city: from the grill man at Pat's Philly Cheesesteaks (complete with the sound of sizzling meat and onions, an idea redolent of Pink Floyd's "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast") to the enthusiastic input of ordinary citizens interviewed and sampled in a journalistic style, to the cry of triumph as the Philadelphia Eagles (at long last) won their first Super Bowl championship.

Everything from the rainbow diversity of Philadelphia's people, to block parties to Benjamin Franklin is celebrated in this piece, which found Mr. Machover taking his place as an ambitious young composer, writing for voice and orchestra in the model of his fellow Pennsylvanian Julia Wolfe. The last sections underlined the history of the Constitution, the drawing and signing of that great document and the weight of Philadelphia's history as a shining beacon in the darkness of 2018 America. This is an eccentric and very modern work; an instant classic.

The second half featured Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in its familiar patina of orchestration by Maurice Ravel. To their credit, Mr. Nézet-Séguin and his Philly crew rubbed the varnish and shellac from this venerable chestnut, revealing the bright orchestral colors and agonized emotions that penetrate each frame of the work. In an era where many conductors simply paint by numbers, Mr. Nézet-Séguin used Pictures at an Exhibition to once more create essential art. 

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