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Yannick and the Orchestra: a dissent (4th review)BY: Robert Zaller 11.05.2010
Yannick Nézet-Séguin can wow a crowd, but can he keep them? Haydn seemed closer to his own sunny disposition in his debut performances, but it’s far too early for judgment yet. In the meantime, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Dutoit semi-era continues.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Haydn, Symphony No. 100 (“Military”) in G; Mahler, Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. October 29-31, 2010 at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893-1999 or www.philorch.org.
His missing ingredient: maturityROBERT ZALLER
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director-designate— we’re being encouraged to call him “Yannick,” to judge by the banner-sized posters announcing his arrival— blew into town like Phaeton on his thundering horses this past weekend to near-capacity houses at the Kimmel Center to perform a program of Haydn and Mahler. Some of us might still wish the banners had read “Vladimir” instead for the early front-runner, Vladimir Jurowski, but in the globetrotting star system of modern orchestral conducting, that was not to be. Nézet-Séguin will obviously bring enthusiasm and showmanship to the job, both of which were on ample display over the weekend.
For the time being, that may eclipse the Orchestra’s other problems, including the New York Philharmonic’s recent attempt to poach its star clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. (When you’ve had the world’s best clarinetist, as New York did for decades with Stanley Drucker, it’s hard to settle for less.)
But it still leaves the Orchestra in an awkward posture of transition, for Nézet-Séguin’s tenure doesn’t officially begin until 2013, and until then the ill-used Charles Dutoit is still officially minding the store. Dutoit has been doing better lately, to judge from the well-conceived readings of the Mahler Third and Shostakovich Fourth that I’ve heard him conduct, but an extended lame-duck situation doesn’t help the gate.
Still, this is the mess the Orchestra created for itself by parting with Christoph Eschenbach in 2008. As for the larger travails of classical music, including the most critical one of all— the absence of major new compositional talent— that is clearly beyond anyone’s control.
Nézet-Séguin himself indirectly alluded to this problem in his pre-concert remarks (and please, ye Gods, spare us this condescension— you don’t hear theater directors describing the plays they’re about to present, do you?). He pointed out that as Haydn was the beginning of the Viennese symphonic tradition— not news to most of us— so Mahler, a century or so later, had tried to take the symphony as far as he could. Unspoken but implied was the statement “as far as it could go,” with all the suggestion of a terminal discourse, or in plainer English a dead end. Very glorious as dead ends go, but dead nonetheless.
A century ago, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was tooling up, Brahms (who died in 1897) was the Last of the Line for most concertgoers, and it won’t be much of an advance if Mahler (died 1911) is the benchmark for 21st-Century audiences. Museums can survive as custodians of the past, but orchestras can’t, even if keeping the classics alive is a critical part of their function.
This is a chicken-and-egg problem, for if part of the challenge is finding composers who will genuinely engage their publics, the other part is giving them sustained exposure. The Orchestra is providing this service for Henri Dutilleux this season, but Dutilleux— happily still with us— is a none-too-youthful 94. This isn’t exactly the music of the future.
A mere court employee
As for this concert, Haydn was represented by his Hundredth symphony, the so-called “Military” in G, and Mahler by his Fifth. Haydn’s music is aristocratic to its fingertips (warfare was still an aristocratic pursuit in the 18th Century): witty, sophisticated and full of playfully surprising turns at almost every step. No aristocrat himself but merely a court functionary, Haydn imbibed the ethos of Old Regime nobility, both expressing and sporting with it as only an outsider could.
By the time Haydn wrote this symphony in 1794, he had become an international figure with a broad urban public, but his music remained rooted in courtly culture. It was left to Beethoven, who learned so much from the late Haydn symphonies, to break free of that convention; but, in an ironic way, Haydn was able to achieve a freedom within his own style that conveys a sheer mercurial delight in being exceeded only by Mozart.
The Hundredth Symphony is particularly coltish, its moods ever-shifting and never taking themselves more seriously than necessary. Nézet-Séguin seems well equipped for this kind of music, and he drew a finely balanced performance from the Orchestra that, at particularly zipping tempos in the finale, kept details securely in place.
Does Mahler say more?
A classicist might say that Mahler takes three times the length of Haydn to say nothing much more. The Fifth Symphony requires a gargantuan orchestra and is, as I’ve noted previously, unprecedentedly complex and variegated in its textures— as difficult a score as any ever composed to that point in musical history.
Yes, the classicist would say, but does it say more? This is perhaps a question of taste and perspective, for what Mahler does— indeed, as Romantics in general do— is not only to say his piece but also to point at the sayer. If that seems a valid expression, then 50 more minutes of music don’t seem top-heavy, but in fact necessary.
One of the burdens Romantic expression seems to impose is narrative, and Mahler’s symphonies, while not explicitly programmatic, are certainly narrative in character. The arch structure of the five-movement Fifth finds a funeral march and a rugged scherzo leading to a second scherzo, the capstone, which notionally at least turns toward the light.
The famous Adagietto fourth movement seems intended to play a role similar to the Adagio of Beethoven’s String Quartet #15 (also a five-movement work), a convalescence after all-but mortal illness, and the concluding Rondo to celebrate a return to life. But Mahler’s musical imagination tends to run riot over such orderly plot lines, and a conductor who tries to adhere to them in any strict fashion will find himself at a loss. Each interpreter must, in fact, find his own sense of the work’s organic structure, with attention to the shifting moods of the score as his basis.
Nézet-Séguin’s performance was competent enough, but I didn’t sense a particularly individual stamp to it. I didn’t hear the clarity of detail that Dutoit had brought to the Mahler Third either, though the Fifth is a much more microtectonic work, and Verizon Hall is not favorable to nuance. Some of the phrasing seemed overly indulgent, too, and the Adagietto was a bit on the syrupy side.
I always worry about the horns in this work, which are so essential to it, especially in the third movement. Jennifer Montone brought her solo parts off with a rich, firm tone, but also painfully flattened a note midway through. If the Orchestra has an Achilles heel, it’s still in this section.
The audience rose as one at the end of the performance to give conductor and orchestra an ovation. Clearly, Nézet-Séguin’s enthusiasm is infectious, and showmanship may be what a contemporary orchestra needs to sell itself. Ultimately, however, what keeps the hall full is interpretive insight and maturity. We’ll wait on the evidence.♦
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