Philly, Hahn and Nézet-Séguin Rock Adès, Bernstein and Sibelius

December 8, 2017: Carnegie Hall, New York

Hot off of a successful international tour with his Montreal Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin cruised into Carnegie Hall last night with (one of) his other principal orchestras, and demonstrated why he’s currently such a choice commodity in today’s world of classical music. It would be hard to take issue with anything he did in a program that was well-chosen and just about perfectly executed by everyone concerned.

The first number consisted of the newly expanded suite from Thomas Adès’ chamber opera Powder Her Face, a revolting piece about a horny duchess brought down by her depraved sex life. Rescored for large orchestra, the suite definitely conveys a certain sleazy charm. It plays continuously for about half an hour, and makes brilliant use of the ensemble, with important solos for woodwind and plenty of distorted references to popular dance music. If it ultimately grew tiresome (and the ending was a letdown), the fault rests squarely with the composer’s habit of getting something good going, then repeatedly stopping and starting with more of the same material, making it impossible for the listener to know what was motivating the music’s pattern of tension and release, and, more importantly, when and why it would finally stop.

Next up: ace violinist Hillary Hahn dazzled in a passionate reading of Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for Violin and Orchestra (after Plato’s Symposium). Scored for an accompaniment of strings and percussion, and arguably the composer’s finest orchestral work, the music found Hahn in top form. It wasn’t just the virtuosity and technical ease in the many ebullient moments that kept us on the edge of our seats, but also the warmth and sensitivity in lyrical passages. The hushed conclusion of the fourth movement especially, with Hahn sustaining a single soft, high tone while the orchestra faded out below, was breathtaking. Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia strings showed that their storied reputation for opulent sonority remains firmly intact–and yet, every note of the solo was clearly in focus. It was a great reading, plain and simple. The audience demanded an encore, and got one in the form of the zippy little Gigue from Bach’s Solo Violin Partita in E major.

Wrapping up the program after intermission Nézet-Séguin offered the First Symphony of Jean Sibelius. Now as older listeners will well remember, Sibelius was a Philadelphia specialty under Eugene Ormandy, and Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation sounded very much in the Ormandy tradition: beautifully played and richly romantic, even luscious. Even though he milked those big, Tchaikovskian tunes in the finale for all that they were worth, this was not a self-indulgent reading by any means. The flowing tempo for the second movement proved that. Rather, it was the sort of “big” view of the work that justified giving it pride of place, all by itself on the second half of the program. Any reservation about Adès notwithstanding, this was an ideal evening of music, magnificently satisfying all around.

David Hurwitz