Orchestra's Nézet-Séguin debuts on a high note

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the opening-night concert on his debut as music directorof the Philadelphia Orchestra, which recently exited bankruptcy.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the opening-night concert on his debut as music directorof the Philadelphia Orchestra, which recently exited bankruptcy. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: October 20, 2012

Now it's l'Orchestre Yannick.

Thursday night at the Kimmel Center, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the spirited 37-year-old Canadian conductor, opened his tenure as the Philadelphia Orchestra's eighth music director with a black-tie reception, concert, and dinner.

Mayor Nutter urged the concert crowd to "keep the orchestra strong," and then introduced the maestro to his new city, asking for a welcome in "fine Philadelphia style." The man of the hour never put down his baton for a microphone, didn't speak a word from stage all evening. In the subtle semiotics of orchestra etiquette, he let the night belong to the ensemble.

Orchestra leaders, too, made it an occasion to fete the musicians - for sacrifices they made to the organization as part of its exit from bankruptcy. Usually the orchestra is sitting in view as the audience arrives. But orchestra president Allison B. Vulgamore walked out onto an empty Verizon Hall stage and called for the "world's greatest orchestra" to make its entrance. The audience rose with an immediate standing ovation.

Then, board chairman Richard B. Worley presented the recipient of this year's Philadelphia Orchestra Award: the entire ensemble.

Speaking for the musicians, concertmaster David Kim said the night was the start of a new era.

"The storms have passed and the sky is clearing at last," he said, referring to the 15½ months in bankruptcy court that resulted in the orchestra's renegotiating several of its contracts, including the one with musicians.

Kim then said that if he could, he would turn the award over to the orchestra's supporters.

"Without you, there would be no us," he told the audience, which included patrons Sidney Kimmel, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, and Joseph Neubauer, as well as Kimmel Center architect Rafael Viñoly.

The concert was a relatively short one, and rehearsal time for it this week had to jockey with the ambitious Verdi Requiem, which Nézet-Séguin will conduct Friday through Sunday and then on Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, in his debut there.

Soprano Renée Fleming paid her own nod to the orchestra when, after a climax in Ravel's Shéhérazade, she visibly luxuriated in the sound on stage around her. Nézet-Séguin drew warm breezes in the first of the three songs, "Asie," and the orchestra, perhaps half-remembering Charles Dutoit's special handling of Ravel at the end of last season, achieved some extremely delicate texturing.

In "Mein Elemer!" from Strauss' Arabella, Fleming deployed her trademark purity. Her luscious sound seemed like a rare commodity in Strauss' ever-transforming score. The greater part of her acting, though, is done through visual means. For all her vocal beauty, she is not a risk-taker.

Here, again, no one neglected crediting the orchestra. The conductor stayed behind to let Fleming take her bows, and when she signaled for him to take his, he came out and asked the orchestra to rise. (Eventually, he did take a brief solo bow.)

Nézet-Séguin's big artistic statement of the evening was Brahms' Symphony No. 4. As a distinct interpretation, parts of the symphony were more meticulously detailed than others. He worked up a good head of steam at the end of the first movement, an energetic if not subtle stroke.

The last movement ended with the kind of bat-out-of-hell pace we've come to expect from him in the work he has done here in the two-plus years since his appointment.

But the conductor brought a gentle sway to tempos in the second movement, and, more impressively, some meaningful fragility to one section in particular.

Here you could feel a personal stamp. And here, as much as anything anyone did or said all night, one could sense that a leader has arrived to point the way forward.

Contact Peter Dobrin

at pdobrin@phillynews.com

or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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