Supreme Coleman, Ravel and Debussy provide a memorable Philly Orchestra season finale

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Friday evening.

The Philadelphia Orchestra concluded their season of visits to Carnegie Hall on Friday with one of the most sparkling orchestral performances heard there since last year. Under artistic direction Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the same group disappointed last month in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony; Friday was much more than just a return to form.

The program was well chosen and strong; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Mitsuko Uchida, and after the break the New York premiere of Valerie Coleman’s Concerto for Orchestra and Debussy’s La Mer. Even a quarter of the way through the 21st century, music concerts that lie solely within the era of common historical and cultural memory are both too rare and enormously welcome. This too was full of wonderful thinking and playing.

At the opening of the piano concerto you felt something special, it was extremely subtle. Beautifully balanced and translucent, but also quiet enough to reach for. Uchida is such a clear player, not understated, but instead expressing immense depth with the sense that she is using exactly the quantity and quality of resources required, and nothing more. That was a wonderful approach to this great score, fully supported by Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra.

Everything was just enough and just right. The balance between piano and orchestra was excellent, and the colors of the latter were beautiful. Uchida’s touch and sonority were fluid and jangly – no surprise – but so were her rhythms and accents at the beginning of phrases, especially in the driving parts of the opening movement.

There was a welcome thoughtfulness, not only a comfortable embrace of the orchestra’s jazz aesthetic, but also the way Uchida and the orchestra outlined the short phrase that reflects Stravinsky’s style. Ritual of Spring. The Adagio was wonderful, with exquisitely expressive playing from the woodwinds, and Uchida played the long series of descending and ascending scales and arpeggios with such a delightful, calm softness that you wanted the music to continue indefinitely.

This combination of skill, charm and thoughtfulness continued into the finale, where the energy was outgoing and fun, but also gentle. Uchida closed the first half with the encore of a simple, beautiful miniature.

Coleman’s Concerto for Orchestra is subtitled ‘Renaissance’ and is her fifth score for Philadelphia. You hope this collaboration will continue, because her music is great and exemplary of an important style of American music making. You hear so many contemporary mainstream American orchestral compositions that engage with the possibilities of instrumental sonorities and express an amiable eclecticism and a desire to shed light on the composer’s place in society. Such music is always skillfully made and always boring, it accepts everything and says nothing.

Coleman’s style, on the other hand, is full of power and conviction, the urban, social modernism that grew after the Second World War. She has passionate and heartfelt things to say – in her own words, the concert is “centered on honoring and reflecting on the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance” – but she doesn’t get lost in arguing specificity. The concerto, in three movements based on the Baroque origins of the tradition, is full of drama and trusts the listener to feel a sense of meaning without telling them what to feel.

The opening is moody, tinkling percussion under a muted trumpet with fragmented lines that seem to struggle eloquently with articulation. It’s echoed by brass instruments offstage and has a rich, noir feel. As colorful as everything else on this program, the music was deeply atmospheric because of its sense of expression, and not just instrumental techniques.

With a combination of tonal harmonies, progressive rhythms and a great sense of tempo and form, the music jumped out of the orchestra. The game felt inspired, Bernstein-esque moments of physical pleasure kept presenting themselves. This was the sound of music that comes from lived experiences, and of musicians who found their driving force and inspiration. This is a piece that every American orchestra should play. Even on first listening one felt that the performance was skillful and true to the music, just like the Ravel.

This also applied to the fantastic La Mer. Nézet-Séguin can be over-energetic and sometimes obliterate the music before him, but this performance was measured to perfection, everything on the quiet side until the most eruptive moments of the first and third movements.

The dynamics were smooth and there was great sensuality in the playing. The colors were perfect and every orchestral detail was clear – things like rhythmic phrasing in the second violins and violas were completely transparent – ​​but nothing was left beyond mere examination. The orchestral timbres in the “Jeux de vagues” were beautiful. In the ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ the orchestra produces a kind of glossy, flowing, liquid sound that seems to pull away from the instruments and carry the entire ensemble forward, like a raft on which they were sitting. You’ve never heard anything like it in concert before, and it was indescribably exciting.

The Met Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and soprano Lisette Oropesa perform music by Jessie Montgomery, Mozart and Brahms, 8 p.m., June 11 Carnegie Hall.

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