The Philadelphia Orchestra hits the mark as UMS season opener

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 5:13pm

The Philadelphia Orchestra

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Jessica Griffin

The opening of any concert season is an exciting event. This past week’s University Musical Society season-opener was particularly thrilling. The hall was abuzz with energy, with student and longtime subscribers lined up all the way out the door to witness the performance. The Philadelphia Orchestra was on hand to deliver a masterful performance of two staples of the repertoire and an inspired performance of a new addition. 

The first piece on the program was Nico Muhly’s “Liar, Suite from Marnie,” an orchestral suite from Muhly’s new opera premiering on Oct. 19 at the Metropolitan Opera. The piece featured frequent staccato passages in the lower woodwinds and strings along with longer melodic material in the upper strings. The opening was energetic, immediately grabbing the audience’s attention. 

After about five minutes, however, this idea began to tire. Short bursts from the basses and cellos did little to sustain the fading energy of the work. The work was at its best in the long melodic passages that pervaded the rest of the work. Overall, however, it could never reach the frantic energy of the opening measures — as the piece continued a quick glance around the hall would reveal the audience becoming increasingly disengaged as the piece continued.

As a taste of Muhly’s upcoming opera, the work was promising. His ideas were fresh and his use of accented notes in the lower strings was unexpected and intriguing. The trading of long melodic notes between woodwinds and strings was quite lovely. But one hopes that the pacing and structure of Muhly’s opera is less predictable than that of the “Suite.” 

The second piece on the program was Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major” with soloist Lisa Batiashvili. From the very first notes of the Tchaikovsky, the orchestra seemed more comfortable with the music. This was clearly the type of playing that they do all the time, and they did not disappoint. The soloist made even the most complicated of passages seem simple, and as her playing increased in intensity, the orchestra matched her step-by-step. The audience could not help but applaud the end of the first movement though two movements were still to come. As conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin pointed out, this would have been standard practice during Tchaikovsky’s time.

The following two movements were similarly magnificent. The orchestra and soloist played with a level of intensity that demanded attention from the audience — it was impossible to sit passively throughout the performance. The finale, in particular, was breathtaking. Batiashvili possesses an effortless ability to take even the most difficult of passages and make them seem effortless. She soared above the orchestra, the upper strings responding to her every move and echoing her in kind. Nézet-Séguin and Batiashvili clearly enjoy working with each other, as they frequently smiled at each other and responded to each other in kind throughout the work.

After five minutes of applause following the piece, Nézet-Séguin and Batiashvili offered a brief encore with Nézet-Séguin accompanying her from the piano. Nézet-Séguin’s piano playing was surprisingly delicate and subtle — though he conducts with large, sweeping gestures his piano playing was relaxed and gentle. Given that he will be returning in Dec. to accompany Joyce DiDonato in a recital of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” it is clear that Nézet-Séguin is equally as comfortable at the piano as he is on the podium.

The concert finished with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” Combining energetic rhythms and simple melodic material, this was Rachmaninoff’s last and arguably best work. Nézet-Séguin lead an aggressive interpretation of the work, emphasizing the complex rhythms and jarringly simple melodic material. Yet even with this aggressive interpretive angle, the orchestra did not lose momentum as they had with the Muhly. They brought a fresh vitality to the work, something that I have not heard in many other performances of it. Though musicality in some passages was replaced by brute force, the overall effect was compelling. 

The end of the performance was met with a near-instantaneous standing ovation. And after five minutes, the orchestra responded to the cries of “encore” with a surprise performance of “The Victors.” Nézet-Séguin had been wearing a white shirt with shoulder pads and mesmerizing purple sequined shoes, and as he returned to the stage wearing a Michigan baseball hat, he encouraged the audience to clap and sing along. It was a fun ending to the night and an encouraging sign of what was to come this concert season. As the audience left the auditorium, the excitement was palpable. The Philadelphia Orchestra had more than lived up to expectations, and it is up to the next ensemble to match the intensity that they brought to this season opener.