Curtis Students in a Thrilling Pendant to Mentors’ Viennese Fest

United StatesUnited States Webern, Schumann, and Brahms: Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 30.1.2016. (BJ)

Webern: Im Sommerwind
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73


United StatesUnited States Busoni, Berio, and Mahler: Curtis Symphony Orchestra, members of the Curtis Opera Theatre, Ludovic Morlot and Conner Gray Covington (conductors), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 31.1.2016. (BJ)

Busoni: Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42
Berio: Sinfonia
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major

Brahms’s Second Symphony made a sumptuous conclusion for Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s three-week conspectus of the music of Vienna with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Conducting most of the first movement in a graceful one beat to the measure, he imbued the music with a wonderful sense of effortless flow, without neglecting the need to offer stronger visual cues in the intermittent forceful tuttis.

If perhaps a shade less illuminating than his stunning performance of the Third Symphony last season, this Second confirmed Nézet-Séguin’s firm grasp of the essentials of Brahmsian style. I missed only two details. The cellos’ tone at the start of the slow movement was so richly saturated as to make the bassoons’ counter-subject in rising contrary motion practically inaudible, and at the fifth measure of the finale, the bass strings’ telling change from legato to staccato flashed by unremarked.

There are various ways of handling tempo in this movement. Many conductors put on an extra burst of speed for the brilliant coda. By contrast the great—and greatly under-recognized—Jascha Horenstein demonstrated that a stringent adherence to the established beat could be exciting in itself. Nézet-Séguin set a highly athletic speed for the movement as a whole, but eschewed any substantial acceleration in the final pages. When the symphony ended, in acknowledging various players’ individual contributions to the success of the whole, he stepped into the middle of the orchestra to shake hands with Richard Woodhams, whose oboe solos had made the Allegretto third movement so bewitchingly grazioso.

The two works before intermission had both been occasions for illumination, though in very different ways. Webern’s pre-Schoenbergian Im Sommerwind drew some shimmering beauty from the orchestra, but may justly be described as a study in discontinuity: practically none of its ideas seem connected in any logical way with each other. Composing means, literally, “putting together.” One essential qualification for being good at it is the ability, not just to come up with a couple of tunes, but to make one lead cogently to the other. Renewing acquaintance with this short but meandering essay by the young Webern underlined what a canny shift of method it was when, in his mature years, he took to writing movements and pieces that rarely exceed a minute or two in duration, so that that challenge hardly arises.

The illumination in Schumann’s Piano Concerto stemmed from the deeply inward-looking character it manifested under the hands of that superb pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. His account of the first movement, in particular, made me realize for the first time how compelling its interplay is between the Eusebius and Florestan elements that Schumann saw as the bedrock of his musical, and probably also human, personality. Andsnes’s partnership with Nézet-Séguin gave the central Intermezzo precisely the walking-on-eggs delicacy it demands, and, though some of the orchestral work in the finale was a bit fierce,  his virtuoso performance led to an encore in the shape of a Chopin nocturne. In the luminous restraint with which he played it, he reminded me of Lang Lang—he’s so different (as an uncle of mine used to say, mutatis mutandis, about his wife and Marilyn Monroe).

On the following afternoon, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra (many if not all of whose members are trained by Philadelphia Orchestra musicians) presented a blockbuster program conducted with clarity and force by Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot. Traditionally, one work in the Curtis orchestra’s Verizon Hall programs is led by a student conductor. On this occasion the beneficiary was Conner Gray Covington, who opened the program with an engrossing performance of Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque. Covington has an excellent ear and a good, clear beat. I hope he was watching the rest of the program, so that he could observe how Morlot brought his left hand into play only when it had something specific to say, rather than maintaining the continuous and counterproductive left-hand-mirroring-right pattern that Sir Adrian Boult used to call “the Grecian-vase effect.”

The work itself is beautifully lyrical and expressive, and it came as a salutary and revealing contrast to the previous evening’s Im Sommerwind, because here every nuance of the delicate score emerged cogently and touchingly from what had preceded it. “Delicate” and “touching” are words that can hardly be applied to Berio’s mind-blowing and often ear-shattering Sinfonia, a no-holds-barred congeries of 1960s musical and societal conflicts and semi-perceived effects: the composer himself described the experience of “not quite hearing” as “essential to the nature of the musical process.” It was exhilarating to welcome the rarely heard piece back, especially in a performance in which the young instrumentalists and eight singers drawn from the ranks of the school’s Opera Theatre gave it their uncompromising all.

Morlot’s performance of the Mahler First Symphony was an object lesson in judicious pacing and long-range dynamic planning. I thought at first that some of the woodwind and brass excursions were a trifle short of impact, but when the first big climax came, I realized that this was just what the conductor had been building toward.

The orchestra, again, covered itself in glory. Many of the players are Asian and they were playing under a French conductor, but they succeeded in making the klezmer-ish bits of the third movement sound convincingly Jewish. The beginning of this movement features a double-bass solo, and of the music at this point Bernard Haitink told me years ago, “I tell the musicians, ‘Please, don’t play too beautifully.’ They are always very surprised to hear that, but you have to work for that, that certain special feeling.” Of course, a double-bass player, presented with the rare chance of a solo, will surely want to sound lovely, and, as my wife remarked, that must be all the more the case when you are a student player keen to make a beautiful impression. In the circumstances, I cannot refrain from congratulating Robin Brawley on his cultivated tone and elegant phrasing.

After such delicacies, the grandiose ending of the symphony came as an utterly engulfing triumph.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment