A Curtis Symphony Shostakovich worth waiting for

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at the Kimmel Center.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at the Kimmel Center. (CHRIS LEE)
Posted: January 28, 2014

Though technically a half-debut, Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first outing with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra didn't actually happen until the Sunday program's second half. But a good 80 minutes of Shostakovich - in a piece that musically encompasses much of World War II - easily counted as a concert in itself.

The Symphony No. 7 Op. 60 ("Leningrad") is just the sort of thing that's been absent from the current Philadelphia Orchestra season - a long, serious, not traditionally ingratiating piece that audiences may or may not take to, especially as it needs a performance with a well-examined strategy. Nézet-Séguin was resourceful, not with the intense probing that allowed Leonard Bernstein to unlock the music's many implications, but with sharply molded, compact sonorities and a tight tempo scheme so that the piece's better moments slowly insinuated themselves, not unlike Ravel's Bolero.

Written to commemorate the 1941 siege of Leningrad, the symphony's network of abstract symbolism is said to be as critical of Stalin as it is of Hitler. In Verizon Hall on Sunday, Nézet-Séguin treated the snare-drum presence in the militaristic first movement as interpretive bedrock, starting quietly and continuing steadily, working like Chinese water torture - as it should.

The following movements are among Shostakovich's most thematically pedestrian - perhaps his covert way of being a conscientious objector. The only thing to do is to underline the musical ingenuity beneath the surface ambiguities, as did Nézet-Séguin. Extended incidental solos would have been more penetrating with more seasoned players. But the quality of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra wasn't in doubt - or to be taken for granted.

The first half, conducted by recent Curtis grad Kensho Watanabe, included Bartok's seldom-heard Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, which is basically an existing sonata with an added orchestral layer that doesn't exactly increase the piece's maneuverability. Balance problems were apparent in this careful performance, the considerable pleasures being pianists Natalie Zhu and Benjamin Hochman, who never let the music's savage propulsiveness rob their sound of color, greatly enhancing the music's poetic dimension.


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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