Director James Alexander and his high-tech team from the company Symphony V.0 take credit for such cleverness. Such a sense of occasion was created that the audience (which filled the academy on Thursday and came close on Friday afternoon) seemed hungry to hear the orchestra, and gave it a rock-star welcome. Downsides were the pale, trivial, computer-animated images of water and Sinbad ships projected in back of the orchestra during Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade. Though they were easily ignored, the blowers needed to cool the lights competed significantly with the orchestra's softer playing. This shouldn't happen again. Though academy renovations in recent years seem to have enriched the bass response and have a clarity that revealed minor performance mishaps, the acoustics need all the help they can get.
Well, as Noel Coward said, "We must rise above." Orchestra and conductor did, but not by following in Stokowski's footsteps. No artist should even think about channeling another. In fact, Nézet-Séguin has expressed ambivalence about reproducing Stokowski's inaugural 1912 program, which on Friday had the Brahms Symphony No. 1 first and a lighter second half — the reverse of modern practice. And he was right: The second half with Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches (which is lightweight tourist music) and Wagner's Tannhauser overture was a letdown.
Yet positive parallels were apparent in Nézet-Séguin's approach to the Stoky signature work, Sheherazade. For all the voluptuousness associated with this less-than-great orchestral showpiece, both conductors knew that the music's primary means of seduction lay in the pianissimo passages. As Sheherazade staves off her execution by spinning tales, this is where she seems to be whispering in your ear. Nice! Also like Stoky, Nézet-Séguin knows how to project sexiness from the score's most repetitive sequences.
Beyond that, Nézet-Séguin seemed a bit more interested in the piece than the elder Stoky, whose radio-recorded Philadelphia performance from the 1960s feels like another high-luxury lap around the park. Nézet-Séguin didn't go in for the kind of detailed, phrase-by-phrase storytelling heard from some conductors these days, but each section had a highly specific character.
After the things-to-come nature of the first movement, the second became dominated not by lushness but by chamber-music-like solos, mainly because they were played with so much personality by concertmaster David Kim, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa and oboist Richard Woodhams, among others. Nézet-Séguin embraced the somewhat fragmented nature of the third movement, treating it like an articulate operatic recitative. But as that movement built, he summoned a flood of the orchestra's trademark sound at its most saturated — with intoxicating effect.
Elsewhere in the two concerts, Nézet-Séguin's craft, interpretive judgment and pacing was solid. But as dandy as Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 was, I missed the depth of subtext brought to the piece by Christoph Eschenbach, whose performances seemed to be about searching for home. Similarly, the Brahms Symphony No. 1 on Friday was first class in many ways but stopped short of greatness. Though Nézet-Séguin's performances invariably have plenty to say, you wish he'd go closer to the edge. Perhaps you don't need to have paid rent in the abyss to fathom the extremes of devastation and hope in the final movement. But it helps.
Should the orchestra revisit the Academy more often? Sure —- for special occasions. For all its problems, Verizon Hall still has better acoustics. And let's face it, the Academy's smaller seats aren't easy on the older patrons or the people sitting in front of them who are inevitably going to have their seats accidentally kicked.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org