Searing “Rite” Signals a New Era

United StatesUnited States  Frank, Ravel, Stravinsky: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 22.2.2013 (BH)

Gabriela Lena Frank: Concertino Cusqueño (2012, New York premiere)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major (1929-1931)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1911-1913)

It is pretty clear from three concerts at Carnegie Hall—last fall’s Verdi Requiem, January’s Shostakovich Fifth Symphony and this one—that the Philadelphia Orchestra has finally entered a sizzling new era with its dynamic new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Verdi was powerful and beautifully paced, and reports on the Shostakovich (which I unfortunately had to miss) have been unanimously positive. Last night’s triumph with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—another of many recent performances marking the work’s (hard-to-believe) 100th anniversary—only confirmed that Nézet-Séguin is not only a brave new leader, but one capable of offering fresh new takes on scores many listeners might find overly familiar.

Certainly there was nothing familiar about Gabriela Lena Frank’s engaging Concertino Cusqueño, a sort of concerto grosso with a South American tinge. Using a medium-sized ensemble, Frank has created an enjoyable romp—heavily string-accented—with spotlights on some of the orchestra’s principal players: concertmaster David Kim, second violin Kimberly Fisher, violist Choong-Jin Chang and cellist Hai-Ye Ni, as well as Kazuo Tokito (piccolo), Paul R. Demers (bass clarinet) and Don S. Liuzzi (timpani). Frank was inspired by Britten’s Violin Concerto, and meshes its opening bars with a Peruvian religious melody, “Ccollanan María.” Afterward, to audience cheers, Nézet-Séguin waved Ms. Frank onstage for a well-deserved bow.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet can probably play both of the Ravel piano concertos in his sleep, and this performance of the G Major Concerto was excellent, though I wasn’t totally sold by his high speeds in the first movement. I know I’m not alone in being wowed by a pianist’s ability to pack in difficult fingerwork (Exhibit A: Marc-André Hamelin), but Ravel’s score benefits from a bit more moderation than was in display here; the florid colors bloom just a bit more when the tempos aren’t so rushed. That said, Thibaudet plays this piece better than most people, and his work in the slow movement was gentle and touching. For their part—starting with a perfectly executed whip crack—Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra offered a rousing collaboration. Jazzy accents from the brass and percussion often bordered on the outrageous—a quality would explode in the Stravinsky.

Last fall Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic opened their season with The Rite, magnificently, with keen attention to color and rhythmic detail. What distinguished Nézet-Séguin’s version was its howling abrasiveness (thank you, expert Philadelphia woodwinds). While the New York reading was gorgeously played, the Philadelphians injected just a bit more craziness—that feeling that the entire enterprise could fly apart at any minute. Daniel Matsukawa’s opening bassoon solo was liquid, heavenly and best of all, gave no inkling of the unbridled chaos that would erupt later. Other highs: Jeffrey Khaner’s wild flute shards, Ricardo Morales’s stinging clarinet bits, and David Bilger (trumpet) and Nitzan Haroz (trombone) leading the brass into a strange land, brimming with anger.

With the Philadelphia players all but swooning in synch, Nézet-Séguin found the buzzing, honking, frothing, bristling, scorching, razzing extremes in the score, making it belch and shriek as few performances I’ve heard. It would be difficult to choose a favorite part, but the “Dance of the Earth” that ends the First Part was the stuff of nightmares. Not since 2005, when a quietly ruthless Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra horrified me with their calm malevolence, have I heard the score with such tingling freshness. On a moment-to-moment basis, Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians offered more electricity than anyone since.

We hardly needed an encore, but the maestro found a near-ideal one: Stravinsky’s gentle Pastorale (1907, rescored 1933) arranged by Leopold Stokowski, who was such an essential part of the orchestra’s history in the early 20th century. I predict that later in the 21st, listeners will be talking about Nézet-Séguin in equally glowing terms.


Bruce Hodges