Curtain calls

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, seen here in a Kimmel Center rehearsal, brought Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" alive in unexpected ways in Thursday's performance with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, seen here in a Kimmel Center rehearsal, brought Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" alive in unexpected ways in Thursday's performance with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Nézet-Séguin and Berlin Philharmonic

Posted: October 24, 2010

BERLIN - The music was finished. Many bows had been taken. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra had left the stage Thursday night, except for a few straggling double bassists.

But listeners were still there and still clapping. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin obligingly scooted back onto the Berlin Philharmonie stage with characteristic energy, and was greeted with yet another approving roar.

The orchestra had played not just well, but interestingly, with a spontaneity that sometimes teetered on the edge of chaos in ways that suited the music and were encouraged by the guest conductor. Chaos never happened - no doubt to the relief of both the conductor and his career managers, who flew in for the occasion.

Next week, Nézet-Séguin debuts in Verizon Hall as the Philadelphia Orchestra's music director-designate; he assumes the post full-time in 2012. In what might be called his last bachelor season - he makes prestigious debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, and others before settling down to prepare for Philadelphia - Berlin is the most important of all.

Though he has conducted other Berlin orchestras, the Philharmonic is the city's storied ensemble, led by a series of legends (Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan), and its players have earned the right to be a tough bunch. The audience is among Europe's most sophisticated, while lacking Vienna's center-of-the-world pretensions. Concerts are usually sold out. And Nézet-Séguin's was the last in a month of young-conductor debuts, which can be hard on the orchestra.

It didn't show. The program was works the young French Canadian has conducted often - Messiaen's Les Offrandes oubliées and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique - while also collaborating with pianist Yefim Bronfman with Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2. For all the Prokofiev's audience-thrilling virtuosity (with Bronfman crashing through the music like Godzilla), the restless, revolutionary Berlioz symphony was where Nézet-Séguin stood to make his mark, even if the timing was hardly optimal.

Any debuting conductor has to cope with the ghosts of past principal conductors. For more than three postwar decades (1955-1989), Karajan trained the orchestra to counteract the natural sound decay of any given note, creating a distinctively imposing wall of gorgeous string sound that was still very much apparent in the Messiaen. The gold-plated luster of the Claudio Abbado years (1989-2002) glistens every so often.

Now, under Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic has become a distinctively probing ensemble, one that has also recently had an intensive period of Symphonie Fantastique performances, both on tour and for recording. Much of Nézet-Séguin's task last week was to rock that boat, to draw the strong-minded players out of Rattle's intriguing psychological depths and into his more sonically bracing interpretation.

Those who subscribe to the orchestra's video-streaming Digital Concert Hall probably got a more evolved performance Saturday. But Thursday's outing was full of details that brought this much-played work alive in unexpected ways. Exceptionally long pauses in the first movement's opening as well as odd accents that later added to the music's quirkiness were indeed markings found in Berlioz' score - ones that most conductors ignore.

But never did the performance seem pedantic: These and so many other touches came with a bristling energy that gave the Symphonie Fantastique a provocative kinship with Stravinsky's much later Rite of Spring. Places where Berlioz' ideas chase each other in different sections of the orchestra - as well as spots with expectation-defying lack of symmetry - almost felt made up on the spot. Each orchestra section took such an aggressively heterogenous stance that the symphony sometimes seemed to declare war on itself.

However, the third movement, with its dialogue of shepherds' pipes failed to cast a sustained spell, even with one of the wind players sounding suitably distant thanks to offstage positioning. But the smarter the audience, the more likely it is to know that this movement rarely has a completely successful performance. So Nézet-Séguin, for all his sharply inflected phrasing, failed to work a miracle. But nobody seemed to hold it against him.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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