The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Brilliant Three-Week Salute to Paris, ‘City of Light and Music’

United StatesUnited States The Paris Festival: Various composers: Soloists, Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. 14/21/26.1.2017. (BJ)

14 January
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Chabrier Joyeuse Marche
Fauré – Pavane
Saint-Saëns – “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila
Canteloube – “Baïlèro,” “Chut,chut,” “La Delaïssádo,” “Lou Coucut,” “Uno jionto postouro,” “Malurous qu’o uno fenno,” & “Brezairola” from Songs of the Auvergne
RavelMenuet antique
Schmitt – Suite from La Tragédie de Salomé

21 January
Louis Lortie (piano)
Boulanger – D’un Matin de printemps
Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
StravinskyPetrushka (1947 version)

26 January
Choong-Jin Chang (viola)
BerliozHarold en Italie, Op.16
RavelAlborada del gracioso; Rapsodie espagnole; Boléro

Perhaps the first aspect to strike the eye in Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s three-week festival dedicated to music associated with Paris—and more widely with France—was that he contrived to create a program devoid of a single work by Debussy. This was by no means regretted by me, since in recent years that composer has been overtaken among my personal preferences by Ravel, whom I used to regard as a lesser figure but now love almost unreservedly, and who was worthily represented by a half-program’s-worth of works including the superb Rapsodie espagnole.

For further pleasure, there was a small sprinkling of unfamiliar music to be heard. Chabrier was represented not by the famous España, but by the very entertaining Joyeuse Marche. The first week’s program concluded with the powerfully impressive suite from La Tragédie de Salomé by Florent Schmitt, a figure hardly ever encountered on today’s concert programs, and on this evidence a composer of notable gifts. And the second week’s program, which originally listed just the two works by the celebrated French immigrants Chopin and Stravinsky, was prefaced without advance notice but with stimulating effect by an evocative piece from the pen of Lili Boulanger. The sadly short-lived sister – she died at the age of 24 – of the conductor and teacher Nadia, she was, like Schmitt, clearly a talent deserving of much more attention than she ever receives.

The music director, moreover, cast his net beyond Paris with welcome flexibility to include a selection from Joseph Canteloube’s bucolic Songs of the Auvergne. They were graced by the participation of one of America’s greatest mezzo-sopranos, Susan Graham. She earned vociferous ovations not only for her vivid and sensitive singing, but for her explanatory words about “Lou Coucut,” including an illustration of the cuckoo’s well-known call, and going on to acknowledge the existence of “a cuckoo that tweets.” (Bear in mind that this concert was given just a week before a certain social-network-addicted person’s inauguration as President of the United States.)

Conducting and orchestral playing set the three-week series going at a high level of artistry and technical polish, and the second and third weeks fully maintained that standard. Louis Lortie brought rock-solid technique and sufficient lyricism to bear on Chopin’s E-minor Concerto, and rewarded the audience’s enthusiastic ovation with a sensitive reading of the composer’s E-major Étude, Op.10 No.3. The soloist in the third week’s Harold in Italy, drawn from the orchestra’s own ranks, was its equally gifted principal viola, Choong-Jin Chang. He was fully equal to all of the score’s demands for poetic expression, though I thought the conductor’s curious decision to turn him into a sort of strolling gypsy violist, projecting his part from no fewer than five locations on and above the stage, did no favors to the clarity with which his tone emerged from the more distant places. It also directly contradicted Berlioz’s instructions in the score.

In all three programs the Philadelphia Orchestra covered itself with glory, Petrushka in particular featuring stellar contributions from all sections, with especially fine playing by principal flute Jeffrey Khaner and spectacular timpani work by Don Liuzzi. Boléro, too, was played and conducted with positively spine-chilling steadiness and brilliance.

If I have one or two small niggles to register, they are concerned not with programming or performance but with presentation. The first program enabled listeners to follow the course of the music with “LiveNoteTM, the Orchestra’s interactive concert guide for mobile devices.” I suppose the resource may enhance some listeners’ experience. But my wife tried it out during the Canteloube songs, and found that at any one time she could open either the original Occitan text or the English translation but not both together, for which the good old-fashioned printed program had to do duty. And the listing in the program of the voluminous original 1911 instrumentation of Petrushka, for a performance clearly labeled as the less lavishly scored 1947 version, was careless.

But such relative minutiae must be seen in their due proportion to the merits of a festival fully worthy of both the cities involved. It offered not just fun, but genuine artistic satisfaction.

Bernard Jacobson

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