Energy was the operative word at this weekend's Philadelphia Orchestra concerts.
Works by Higdon, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky resonated with vitality and an exceptional intensity.
In addition, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin displayed personal energy in shuttling back and forth between Philadelphia and New York, where he led two performances of Gounod's five-act opera Faust during the same week as the rehearsals and performances of this orchestra program. (On Saturday, Nézet-Séguin led Faust at the Met between 1 and 5 p.m., then traveled to Philly for the 8 p.m. concert.)
Higdon's Concerto For Orchestra displays unusual combinations of instruments as it bustles through five movements full of pulsating rhythms. The work nervously juxtaposes chimes, bells, glockenspiel and marimba while also spotlighting flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons.
Unleash the schmaltz
Higdon wrote her concerto to commemorate the Philadelphia Orchestra's centennial in 2000. The second piece on the program— Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, also has Philadelphia roots, having received its world premiere here in 1934 with the composer at the piano.
Nézet-Séguin's interpretation of Rachmaninoff departed refreshingly from the norm. The orchestral attacks were crisp and tart, and most of the piece went trippingly with faster-than-normal tempi. The lushness of the Philadelphia strings was held in abeyance until the latter part of the slow 18th variation, when conductor and orchestra unleashed its romantic schmaltz. That approach rendered the composition even more effective than usual.
Yuja Wang's piano fit perfectly into this concept. The 24-year-old China-born graduate of the Curtis Institute plays lightly and unaffectedly yet with warm emotion. She shaped phrases gently, which made her infrequent explosions of power all the more impressive. Wang's attractive appearance, too, is unaffected, with none of the swaying and swooning we get from her fellow Curtis alum, Lang Lang.
She added the lovely, lyrical Liszt piano version of a melodie from Gluck's Orfeo et Eurydice as an encore.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 also benefited from Yannick's energetic approach. It had propulsive drive and then swelled to impressive full-volume climaxes. This "Little Russian" lacks the complexity of the composer's Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies; it's an unsubtle succession of Russian folk tunes and anthems. Nevertheless, this dynamic performance was pleasant to hear.
By this time the concert had run ten minutes past the normal two-hour mark. Yet Nézet-Séguin added, as an encore, the Russian dance from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The man next to me observed that the musicians were earning overtime pay, adding that Yannick, as the Orchestra's new music director "can do whatever he wants."
Well, no, he can't. No conductor enjoys that freedom. But wouldn't it be nice if he did?
Last week's audiences were happy because Marin Alsop provided an encore and also concluded the concert in less than two hours. Nézet-Séguin's audience was even more demonstrative, and seemed to be thrilled to get two hours and ten minutes of excitement for their money.
After hearing pessimism about the future of the Orchestra recently, it was good to see a packed Verizon Hall, including many young people, cheering at this concert.