Music Review: Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

February 24th, 2013

Conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin kept the mysterious “Introduction” restrained and elusive to eerie effect. The elegiac melodies played a game of tease with slinky inner voices in the reedy woodwinds. Mr. Nézet-Séguin, in his first season as the orchestra’s music director, strongly emphasized the music’s primordial elements.

As the ritualistic dance sections to the ballet score broke out he drew onrushing, sometimes hellbent playing from this great orchestra. There was hurtling energy in the “Games of the Rival Tribes.” The “Dance of the Earth” at the end of Part 1 built with frenzy and ferocity to the slashing final chord that stops the music cold.

Still, for all the excitement of Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s “Rite,” I did not come away with fresh insight into this landmark score, which is still shocking. It is being played a lot this season as organizations celebrate the 100th anniversary of its 1913 Paris premiere. In the last few days in Philadelphia Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted a few performances that included dancers, videos and acrobats from the Ridge Theater Company. But the orchestra left that part of the show behind for this visit to Carnegie Hall.

I could not help comparing Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s “Rite” with the probing, organic performance that Alan Gilbert conducted at the season-opening concert of the New York Philharmonic in September. For example Mr. Gilbert reined in the tempo of the final “Sacrificial Dance” so that for once you could hear all the fitful shifts and jagged rhythms. Mr. Nézet-Séguin drove the orchestra headlong through the final dance amid blazing colors; I could easily imagine the sacrificial victim of the ballet dancing herself to death. During Mr. Gilbert’s performance, though, I kept thinking about how radical and stunning this music is.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin has certainly proved himself able to give revelatory accounts of major works, as he did with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony when the Philadelphia Orchestra last came to Carnegie Hall in January. He did the same on Friday in Ravel’s Piano Concerto, in league with the brilliant French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The performance captured the jazzy, Gershwinesque sassiness of the concerto. But the piece has seldom seemed so modern, daring and smart as it did here. Mr. Thibaudet played with crackling vitality but also, when called for, cool restraint. He brought textural clarity to intricate passagework that in many performances can seem like just washes of piano sound. Mr. Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra were right on board with Mr. Thibaudet’s breathless account of the madcap, perpetual-motion finale.

The program opened with the New York premiere of the American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Concertino Cusqueño,” which was written last year for Mr. Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the premiere last fall in Philadelphia. In this piece Ms. Frank blends her Peruvian heritage with her admiration for Britten. It begins with a quotation of the simple, jumpy timpani riff that opens Britten’s Violin Concerto. But the melody that immediately emerges is based on a religious tune from the Cusco, the original capital of the Inca Empire.

Melodic lines get tossed around to different solo instruments and sections of the orchestra, like a contemporary South American concerto grosso. The blend of folkloric lyricism with Neo-Classical formality is deftly handled in this fetching and personal work, played with vivid colors and imagination here.

Responding to the long ovation at the end of the “Rite” Mr. Nézet-Séguin conducted a fitting encore: Stravinsky’s tender 1907 “Pastorale” in a 1933 arrangement that Leopold Stokowski created for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is clearly immersing himself in this ensemble’s storied heritage.

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