Philadelphia Orchestra and Nézet-Séguin reach a bit too far

Posted: January 26, 2013

Amid the plethora of recent triumphs by the Philadelphia Orchestra and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, it's almost a relief to report that their latest program, however wonderful, wasn't all the way there. So they're still human. And there's room to grow.

Thursday's Verizon Hall stop in their journey showed occasional instances of less-than-sturdy transitions and tempos that didn't track with each other. A problem? Not if you heard the concert as an orchestra and conductor reaching beyond their usual standard.

The all-orchestral program covered a core area of Nézet-Séguin's repertoire with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 - a pairing that showed Bruckner using Wagnerian language majestically but with without heroism, while Wagner affectionately paid tribute to his family, with melodies repurposed quite differently in the ultimate hero opera, Siegfried.

The Seventh, heard in the Nowak edition, is the most melodically appealing of Bruckner's symphonies, and also allowed comparisons with Nézet-Séguin's younger self: In his 2006 Orchestre Metropolitain of Montreal recording, he sustained the composer's long, musical spans (much like a switchback mountain trail, where you see the same view at ever-higher elevations) as only a Bruckner specialist can.

Yet the Montreal recording was the outline of a great interpretation rather than Thursday's more comprehensive performance. Nézet-Séguin took Bruckner's organ-centric view of the orchestra seriously, as reflected in sonorities that were clearly layered cross-sections of harmony, and heavy on bass.

Also, the performance revealed every contrapuntal strand with a double function, as both architectural buttressing and emotional content, the latter carried with almost vocal expressivity by the orchestra's superb principal wind players. For all the symphony's cinematic shifts - the quick cross-cutting from one musical sphere to another - the piece maintained a longterm sweep while allowing each of those spheres to find its own specific tint. With luck, future performances will have greater coloristic specificity and even more vividly projected expression.

Siegfried Idyll is Wagner lite (no dark edges anywhere) but still has a highly involved musical narrative that requires strategy. This performance had more than the usual sense of description: Some people hear childlike visions of cats meowing and sheep bleating, and this reading encouraged that. No hints here of the Siegfried opera to come; Nézet-Séguin gave the piece a sound envelope all its own, with airy string textures and gently buoyant rhythms. Lovely.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's usual Saturday repeat performance is preempted by the annual Academy of Music anniversary concert and ball.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at

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