Nézet-Séguin fills in, with spark

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1" the shape of exalted chamber music.
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 1" the shape of exalted chamber music. (PIER ANDREA MOROLLI)
Posted: April 07, 2013

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin substituted for guest conductor Jaap van Zweden Thursday, thereby reviving a tradition from the Philadelphia Orchestra's Ormandy era.

On short notice, Nézet-Séguin stepped into a subtly crafted program based on a historical query, but altered it to shape an orchestral showcase with emphasis on a whooping good time.

Van Zweden had lined up Brahms, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss to ask the question raging at the time of the Philadelphia Orchestra's birth in 1900: "Where is music heading?" By dropping Schoenberg and adding more Strauss, Nézet-Séguin mooted the question, heightening the program's color and virtuosic gloss.

The basis for The Question was Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. The young Brahms took heart from Mozart and from the piano revolution stirred by Chopin. For a mammoth work - in the Romantic mold - he used a Mozart-like orchestra, devised thoughtful counterpoint and even fugue, and sculpted music that honored the newly expanded piano capacities while remaining classically pointed toward an expressivity based on reason.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, a winner of the Chopin Prize 43 years ago, seemed an ideal choice to make all those connections. His sensitivity in matching his buoyant playing with single instruments and orchestral ensembles gave the work the shape of exalted chamber music.

The expressive range developed by such intimate ensemble stripped any sense of unwieldy bulk from the work. Ohlsson savored the near-duet with timpani in the first movement, joined the violin as an equal, and found equal footing with bassoons and horns. He developed a wide range of color through carefully graded dynamics and brought it all to a summary that grew in intensity to a cathartic pitch.

To underline the Brahms-Chopin link, Ohlsson added a bold splash of Chopin as an encore.

That said, Nézet-Séguin led the expanded orchestra in Tod und Verklaerung and the originally programmed Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier. The polar differences in those works provided a kind of answer to the program's question: Where to? Strauss' instrumental ingenuity lengthened the romantic era. His harmonic innovations hide behind all that color, but Nézet-Séguin revealed a good deal of the inner workings of a score that ranges from a sigh to an outburst.

As pure celebration of orchestral virtuosity, it could hardly be matched. The players seemed poised at the subtlest suggestion from the baton. Violinist Juliette Kang's solo was just one of the expressive highlights in this reading. The changes in pace and dynamics probed the full dimension of the emotion of Strauss' study of death.

Life - lusty life - was the point of the Rosenkavalier waltzes. Nézet-Séguin is an operatic conductor with the instincts to reveal depth and satire, sentiment and good musical times. The brief survey of the opera, with its instrumental glories and broad humor, brought cheers - but did not answer fully the program's tantalizing question.

Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at Verizon Hall. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

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