Under Yannick, a fresh treatment of the familiar

Leonidas Kavakos was violin soloist.
Leonidas Kavakos was violin soloist. (Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: January 18, 2013

Yannick Nézet-Séguin began Wednesday's Philadelphia Orchestra concert at a point where his predecessor Charles Dutoit would have ended: Ravel's La Valse. Was something Oedipal going on here? Whatever the case, the program evolved into a provocative package, allowing familiar music to be heard with refreshed ears.

Ravel's 1920 piece is about the dissolution of the 19th century, embodied by a waltz that refuses to adapt no matter how much the harmonic floor crumbles beneath it. The piece eventually waltzes itself to death, going down with a final whack of militaristic percussion. Concluding the program was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, his first major work after Soviet authorities extended their dictatorship to the arts, prompting the composer to write a piece that superficially apologized for past artistic adventures but was also his first work of coded protest. Bombast suitable to the Stalin era had a beleaguered undercurrent that anyone with a good set of ears wouldn't miss.

Both works make a great impression on audiences even when played with a straight face. But Nézet-Séguin took the opposite approach with subtext in capital letters. Flexible tempos in the ever chic La Valse both accentuated the music's superficial suaveness while making each of the piece's numerous events stand out more vividly than usual, making you reexamine them anew. Overall cohesion wasn't a priority; breezy incidental solos conjured images of people going off to war in evening gowns.

The Shostakovich began business as usual with Bach-like economy, progressing from a tiny, durable motif. Then the first movement kicked in with the horn section coming to the fore, playing in odd lower registers so that you're not sure what's coming at you - kicking into an edge-of-the-seat performance. The final movement is the music of ultimate triumph. But of what sort? Usually zippy tempos were replaced with deliberate ones, conveying not victory over oppression, but oppression over victory. Like La Valse, the symphony was about The End with a veneer of denial - resurrection on the surface, subjugation not far below.

Wind solos were thoroughly eloquent, flutist Jeffrey Khaner particularly conveying a lonely voice in the wilderness. The strings, which can seem like a velvet steamroller in less imposing repertoire, were like a polished metal one that reflected its world while crushing it.

The demilitarized zone between the two pieces was supposed to be Osvaldo Golijov's new Violin Concerto, which wasn't ready and was replaced by Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 2. Performances I've heard from the composer's native Poland emphasize the music's roots in Prokofiev. Nézet-Séguin's sense of color and fantasy made it seem like Richard Strauss on acid, making the many orchestration details ambush one's ears.

It was a treat to hear this infrequently performed piece with a violinist of Leonidas Kavakos' caliber. Amid so much rhapsodic orchestral density, he was a beacon of shimmering tone, always with a clear idea as to where any given phrase peaks. He also had a firm vision of the music's long-term destination - not easy in a concerto that dispenses with the usual three-movement format in its dense thickets of orchestral color - and waved to it every so often.

Additional performances:

2 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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