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January 10, 2011

Good vibes at Philadelphia Orchestra with music director designate Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Yannick Nezet-SeguinOn 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

Mozart's Requiem on the second (only the fourth time in the orchestra's 110-year-history the Requiem has been programmed). I'm not sure how those two pieces would be considered complementary -- not that they have to be -- but it gave Nezet-Seguin a chance to let audiences hear his approach to two very different parts of the repertoire.

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.  


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:16 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes


You're obviously in good company for checking YNS out and making the trip to do so in person, as James Oestreich of the NYT did the same, reviewed here. Of course, for local readers in Philly (and since you alluded to Eschenbach's prior experience there), the local critic's review got more than the usual going over from locals, if the comments there are anything to go by.

What's interesting is that some of Dobrin's and Oestreich's criticisms actually sort of dovetail at points. Of course, the notoriety of Dobrin's past campaign against Eschenbach in Philly colors any reading of his reviews now. He's obviously still peeved that Vladimir Jurowski didn't sign on, although maybe after gauging the situation there, VJ thought better of it, and might wait until after YNS' time.

I wonder if hearing the third night made any significant difference. To my ears, the conducting and playing both had lots of character and clarity. I'll be very curious to hear more of Y and Co. in the future. TIM

While I did not hear YNS in Philly, I was at the Met Don Carlo and my impression was that he was high on energy but short on refinement: lack of coordination with singers, occasional sloppy entrances. But I also heard a sumptuos orchestral sound which made me think that he may be a good fit for Philly after all.

Thus, I was surprised to hear that he went for a lighter texture in these concerts. This is actually a good thing, as it shows that he does not treat all music the same way. So let's hope he'll grow and recall that Stokowski was not much older when he took the reigns of what was to become the Fabulous Philadelphians (no, YNS is no Stoky, but then no one else is...)

For DC, did you see YNS conduct Don Carlo live in 3D? It sounds that way from your post. I saw the HD-cast, and thought he did well with it. I didn't quite sense any slight mistimings from the HD-cast, but I wouldn't claim to be as knowledgeable about opera as you are.

For Tim S., one more out-of-town review, again showing that you're in good company for traveling, from George Loomis of the Financial Times here. The comments on Dobrin's review unfortunately (or otherwise) were taken down, so that you can't read now some of the harsh comments directed at Phil. Orch. president Alison Vulgamore and board chairman Richard Worley, basically saying that the two of them are running things into the ground there. Of course, they offer no evidence and I don't live in the Philly area now to offer any evidence pro-or-con. Some comments are basically saying that Vulgamore and Worley are watching the Detroit meltdown with an eye on upcoming contract negotiations in Philly, which start soon. The warning from the commenters is basically "Watch out; Detroit's going down, we're next".

Volatile times, aren't they? TIM

Well, the original Inquirer link to Dobrin's review is sort of back, here. You can now check out some of the "watch out, we're next after Detroit!" comments from the bashers of the Philadelphia Orchestra's management. Dobrin put a back-handed compliment to YNS in his review of this week's Philly concert with Gianandrea Noseda, mentioning YNS' "promising sensitivity" about the encore of Wolfie's "Ave verum corpus". At the risk of sounding naive, I certainly wish that the Philly management are looking the Detroit disaster as an object lesson on how not to conduct contract negotiations.

I actually forgot to respond to your earlier point about your attending the Saturday night performance, as opposed to the reviews by Dobrin and Oestreich, which would have been of the Thursday performance. Obviously conditions vary from night to night, and maybe earlier kinks were worked out (or replaced by other, less problematic kinks), as tends to be the case as the weekend run goes on.

For Geo,

I was actually in the Met auditorium for Don Carlo, at the second representation on November 26. Perhaps by the time of the HD transmission the issues of lack of coordination have been fixed.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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