A memorable evening with Yannick, Yuja and Jennifer (Higdon)

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Ricordanza
Posts: 2009
Joined: Sun Jun 26, 2005 4:58 am
Location: Southern New Jersey, USA

A memorable evening with Yannick, Yuja and Jennifer (Higdon)

Post by Ricordanza » Thu Dec 15, 2011 6:43 am

Saturday night’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert could be summed up with a series of questions and answers:

How can the Philadelphia Orchestra fill the seats at Verizon Hall, and ensure that those in attendance will come back for more? As answered by concertmaster David Kim a few years ago in a radio interview, just play music the audience loves to hear. Does that mean, play only the “warhorses?” No, the supposedly conservative Philadelphia audience will react warmly, even enthusiastically, to an unfamiliar or contemporary work if it meets with their approval. But the audience still likes the old favorites, don’t they? Yes, but they’ll like them better if performed with a sense of discovery and excitement, conveying just why these pieces remain audience favorites.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has performed its share of premieres of modern works, received politely more or less, and then forgotten. But Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is an exception. Music Director Designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Orchestra in a thrilling performance of this work. Initially commissioned to commemorate the centennial of the Orchestra and first performed in 2002, this five-movement work showcases, as its name implies, individual instrumentalists, specific sections, as well as the entire orchestra. I found the entire piece engaging, but was most fascinated by the second movement, scored for strings alone, and the fourth movement, dominated by the percussion. The percussion section for this work, it should be noted, includes 26 different instruments. I couldn’t begin to describe the style of the music; Higdon doesn’t sound like anyone else. It’s modernist, but accessible. Let’s just say its musical creativity at its best. The orchestra received a loud, standing ovation for its superb performance of this intricate work, challenging even for a virtuoso ensemble. The composer was then called up to the stage (from her seat right in front of us!) to receive a even louder ovation from the audience.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was also premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra, in a 1934 performance led by Leopold Stokowski with the composer at the keyboard. Now if I had a Time Machine, that would be one of my first stops on my tour of past concerts I would have liked to attend. But returning to reality for the moment, Saturday night’s performance with soloist Yuja Wang was pure delight. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Yuja and following her spectacular career from her days as a Curtis Institute student of great promise to her current status, at the age of 24, as an established star of the classical music world. But let’s not forget that this work is more than a showcase for the piano. It takes a nuanced and dynamic performance of both orchestra and pianist to remind us of the enormous creativity and imagination of this work, and that’s what we heard on Saturday night. Concerto soloists rarely play encores at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, but the audience demanded one, and Yuja responded with Horowitz’ Carmen Fantasy (perhaps with her own embellishments?). Yes, I know, technical command is only a means to an end, but I couldn’t help but notice that Yuja’s technique has advanced from the merely formidable to the status of jaw-dropping.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian”) is not quite in the same “warhorse” category as his Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6, but any work of Tchaikovsky is still a favorite of the audience and, as violinist Davyd Booth remarked in a pre-concert talk three years ago, this music is “in the players’ DNA.” This symphony happens to be a particular favorite of mine. Tchaikovsky uses three songs from the Ukraine (then called “Little Russia,” hence, the Symphony’s subtitle) as a melodic base. I am always amazed by the remarkable Fourth Movement, which is built upon a mere fragment of a melody, a ten-note motif from the Ukrainian song, “The Crane.” Somehow, Tchaikovsky takes this fragment and constructs a full symphonic movement that is complex, daring and exciting. Tchaikovsky might be in the players’ DNA, but that doesn’t guarantee how the work will sound in performance. On this night, however, Yannick led the Philadelphians in a performance that brought out the details while capturing the overall spirit of this work.

A brief but altogether appropriate encore completed this highly enjoyable concert: The “Russian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

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