Philadelphia Orchestra’s New Conductor

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Photo by Jessica Griffin
(See video clip below.)

Yannick of the North Returns to Philly’s Embrace, But…

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Kimmel Center, Philadelphia
Jan. 8, 2011

Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is not officially taking over the stewardship of the Philadelphia Orchestra until 2012, but his introductory concerts are already sell-outs and the buzz is fab for the Fabulous Philadelphians. Audiences here have embraced him as the keeper of the music heritage and he has star power on the podium that invites comparisons to Leonard Bernstein and Riccardo Muti.

In the fall Yannick showed his beefy musical prowess, not to mention his palpable chemistry among the musicians, playing an ostensibly safe program of Haydn and Mahler with intriguing accents. His second outing in early January was more musically daring, and the performance more erratic.

He opened with his fine interpretation of “Nocturnes” by Debussy, its tonal effects full of blue shadows and meditative resolve. There was instant engagement and balance in the hall, not just the surface beauty of the piece. The many highlights included by David Kim’s first violin cadenza and a earthy oboe line by principal Richard Woodhams. Nézet-Séguin’s physicality on the podium is rapturous—his baton is at times calligraphic, at times like a surgical instrument, and his free hand seems to grab the music. The final tableaux of the Sirens with the womens’ chorus was French musical heaven.

In contrast, the maestro seemed to be wrestling Mozart’s “Requiem” in an earnest, but eventually pinned-down performance. And really, aside from being a masterpiece, structurally, the work is a beast unto itself. It faces off passages of baroque liturgy with driving symphonic narrative of epic dimension.

Vocally there was undeniable greatness, starting with the all four soloists—Lucy Crowe, Birgit Remmert, James Taylor, Andrew Foster-Williams—as well as the mighty and valiant Philadelphia Singers Chorale under the direction of David Hayes. Crowe, especially, embodies the sumptuously rich Mozartian soprano. There were a few technical flaws in key moments, like the jagged tuba mirum (admittedly a very difficult phrase), which led to a wobbly entrance of bass-baritone Foster-Williams.

Even with some gorgeous orchestral passages, the thrust of metaphysical Mozart seemed just out of reach. The orchestral/choir interlocks should have been cleaner, and the orchestra needed more overall drive. Nézet-Séguin seemed to have to rely on the work’s surface drama to carry it. The overflow house, however, didn’t seem to care about any deficiencies in their lusty applause of approval that cued six curtain calls.

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