Good vibes at Philadelphia Orchestra with music director designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin
On Saturday evening, I zipped up to Philadelphia (the rail gods were smiling benignly) in time to sample the buzz being generated by a 35-year-old French-Canadian conductor.
He's Yannick Nezet-Seguin -- or just plain Yannick, as he apparently prefers to be called -- and he was recently named the next music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
This being the era of the unusually young music director (see: Dudamel, Gustavo), it's also the era of skepticism. I understand the tendency to doubt, to be wary of each fresh new face touted as the next savior of one institution or another, if not all of classical music. But, if a single live encounter is a valid measuring stick, I'd say that Nezet-Seguin has what it takes to light quite a fire in Philadelphia (he officially starts in the 2012-13 season, with a few weeks of concerts each season beforehand). It should be just the thing to help everyone get past various administrative and financial bumps at the orchestra in recent years.
I'd also say that Nezet-Seguin is going to deliver a lot more than surface appeal, for Saturday's performance provided strong evidence of a keen musical mind, a distinctive flair for interpretation and an ability to inspire an orchestra.
The concert was intriguing in content -- Debussy's "Nocturnes" on the first half and
The public clearly wants to get better acquainted with the conductor; a fourth performance of the program had to be added to the originally scheduled three to meet the demand. On Saturday, the audience's enthusiasm was palpable, and it looked like hundreds were staying on for a post-performance Q&A with Nezet-Seguin as I was heading back to the train station. And, although reading body language of orchestral players can be a fool's game, the personnel onstage during the concert sure looked happy. They also sounded wonderful.
The famed Philadelphia string tone purred at the start of the Debussy score and that silken quality largely prevailed all evening. Some beautifully shaded efforts in the woodwinds and generally suave brass work likewise reaffirmed the fundamental strengths of the ensemble.
What really impressed, though, was the attentive, nuanced way the musicians responded to the conductor's graceful guidance on the podium. And Nezet-Seguin is a very stylish baton-wielder. I especially like the fact that he doesn't go in for much mirror-beating -- the widespread habit of keeping the beat with both hands moving exactly the same way all the time. There are exceptional conductors who do this, I hasten to add, but it's nice to see someone so artfully using one hand for tempo, the other for continual sculpting and refining.
The impressionistic brilliance of "Nocturnes" emerged in often gorgeous, sensual detail; the closing "Sirens" movement, in particular, emitted wonderful hues. The women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale sang their wordless part of that finale with a fine blend, but softer dynamics would have been welcome.
Nezet-Seguin's very effective way of prolonging the silence at the end of the piece reminded me of his predecessor, Christoph Eschenbach, who also loves to hold off applause as long as he can after a sublime coda. (Speaking of Eschenbach, I still think he got a raw deal in Philadelphia, but no use in going over that territory now. Besides, it's great having him in Washington, leading the National Symphony.)
Mozart's Requiem found Nezet-Seguin striking a balance between terrific propulsion and highly effective breadth (the "Lacrimosa," for example, was allowed a good deal of breathing room and emotional weight). The solo quartet did admirable work, as did the Chorale. I wouldn't have minded a few more instruments for the performance, though. Nezet-Seguin followed the common practice of reducing the orchestra to historical appropriate size, but the choristers were at full-strength.
Once again, the conductor ensured a long pause at the end, after a particularly haunting final chord that was slowly drained of life, as it were -- a perfect sonic metaphor for a Requiem.
I noticed the players putting another score on their stands during the curtain calls and figured there could only be one possible encore after this work. Sure enough, more Mozart -- his "Ave Verum Corpus." Molding the choral and orchestra forces with a deft touch, Nezet-Seguin ensured that the music spoke eloquently.
The whole concert spoke eloquently for the conductor's potential in Philadelphia.
PHOTO (by Ryan Donnell) COURTESY OF PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA