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Yannick’s homage to Stokowski (1st review)BY: Victor L. Schermer 06.25.2012
In four memorable concerts this past weekend, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new leader, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, paid homage to the showmanship and musicianship of its late conductor Leopold Stokowski. He also demonstrated that he still has a thing or two to learn from Stoky.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Stokowski Celebration. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. June 22 & 23 2012 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. (215) 893-1999 or www.philorch.org.
Yannick’s Stokowski quandary:
The Philadelphia Orchestra returned briefly from the Kimmel Center to the Academy of Music last weekend for four concerts celebrating the life and music of Leopold Stokowski, the renowned conductor who transformed the Philadelphia Orchestra into one of the world’s greatest ensembles beginning a century ago. With a combination of musical artistry, quixotic personality, showmanship, innovation and entrepreneurial brilliance, Stokowski became the stuff of which legends are made. It was a real coup for the Orchestra’s current conductor-in-waiting, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, to seize the day to create a grand celebration of Stokowski.
Not only did the music generate its own high wattage, but the luminescent blue lighting and multimedia projections transformed the fabled “Old Lady of Locust Street” into a party zone, affording a reminder that when Stokowski took the Orchestra’s helm in 1912, electric lighting, phonographs and film were relatively new and exciting technology, as computers are today. The 1940 animated film Fantasia, a Disney-Stokowski collaboration the music of which was recorded by the Orchestra at the Academy, became the apotheosis of electricity-driven technology, bringing sound film and animation into a new era.
The tribute concerts began with an exchange between Nézet-Séguin and Jayson Smith, an actor portraying Stokowski, with their recorded video images electronically placed at opposite balconies, and Stokowski dramatically tossing his baton across the proscenium to the current leader via another set of images. The electrical engineering components, known collectively as Symphony 5.0, complemented the intensity of the live orchestral music. In the lobby, photos of Stokowski, facsimiles of program notes and news clippings, and Stokowski’s actual tuxedo and podium lent a feeling of history and nostalgia to the event.
The oft-debated question of whether Stokowski was a consummate musician or merely a crafty showman has by now been resolved, with a consensus that he creatively synthesized both dimensions. Nézet-Séguin, the immanent rock star of the Philadelphia orchestral world, appears likewise struggling to bring together these opposite poles of the conductor’s art.
Like Stokowski, he comes to an orchestra hungry for revival in the wake of hard times, seeking a maestro to liven up the action without sacrificing the Orchestra’s high musical aspirations. In the two years that he has offered concerts with the Orchestra, Yannick– possibly the first maestro in history to be called by his first name in marketing publicity– has admirably conducted with verve and skill, while also flashing his exuberant personality in talking up the Orchestra.
The Stokowski celebration afforded a remarkable opportunity to exhibit Yannick’s credentials in an electrifying manner as he prepares to assume his full duties as music director this fall. The question was: How well did he succeed?
Like New Year’s Eve
There is no question that Yannick proved his competence as a showman, albeit one less flamboyant and unpredictable than Stokowski. The excitement and enchantment that he generated in these concerts was over the top. And the stormy ending of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” followed by an encore of Johann Strauss’s “Rakoczy March”— with Yannick playfully conducting the audience’s rhythmic claps— came off like a combination of Apocalypse Now and a Viennese New Year’s Eve Celebration.
Musically, however, the performances ranged from the sublime to, in one piece, the almost ridiculous.
Under Yannick’s baton, the Orchestra performed three compositions in magnificent fashion. Their performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 meticulously attended to Brahms’s structural and lyrical intentions. (Brahms here felt under the gun of an almost impossible challenge to move the symphonic form into a new era following the culmination of the classical era in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) Every section of the orchestra was in synch and up to full sonority, and Richard Woodhams’s oboe solo in the second movement formed a memorable centerpiece for the entire symphony, reminding one of how the Philadelphia musicians have set the world’s standards for sound and virtuosity.
Wagner to die for
The performance on the same afternoon of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser was breathtaking, no doubt rivaling anything heard at Bayreuth. The full sweep of sound, along with the precise articulation of the allegro portions, invoked the innovative harmonies and subtle counterpoints through which Wagner brought orchestral composition to a new level for his time.
In all of the weekend’s performances, the use of the full complement of musicians and the Academy’s rich acoustics (noble, even if imperfect to some) brought out the famous lush Philadelphia sound to a point of near excruciation. The Tannhäuser was truly music to die for.
The following evening, things began with a stunning, almost overwhelming performance— again with full orchestra— of Stokowski’s famous arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It may truly have qualified as the all-time best performance ever of this iconic piece, and I only wished it had been recorded so that it could be compared with others. Through this one performance alone, Nézet-Séguin qualified as one of the world’s great maestros.
Mickey and Lenny
This unmatchable event was followed by a totally different emotional tone— sheer enchantment— as excerpts from the film Fantasia were shown on a screen while the Orchestra performed Stokowski’s arrangements for Disney’s “Nutcracker” and “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segments in an unparalleled combination of music and charming animation. The fact that it came off without a hitch reflects the behind-the-scenes skill and dedication that went into producing these celebratory concerts.
Perhaps with a touch of diversity in mind, Yannick next did Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. While the lyrical portions, such as “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “There’s a Place for Us” were deeply moving, the intense, rocking Latin rhythms of the various Sharks/Jets altercations sounded too much like a high school marching band.
This orchestra has never been able to successfully negotiate jazz rhythm. That’s why “there’s a place for” the Philly Pops, with its nonpareil performances of Bernstein.
Fortunately, the rendering of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite more than made up for the misstep. Judging from this work as well as a previous performance of The Rite of Spring, Nézet-Séguin could be considered a true master of the Stravinsky ballet suites. The string sections outdid themselves in the technically challenging sequences that Stravinsky wrote for them, and the brass and woodwinds performed in unrivaled fashion.
The rest of the Saturday concert, with its ride into hell and Viennese decadence, was all showmanship. Perhaps that’s what’s needed to please an audience, but it makes an audiophile wince. This orchestra is graced to have a conductor of Nézet-Séguin’s caliber at its helm. But if he intends to be a showman, maybe he should follow in Stokowski’s footsteps and carefully nuance the role to optimal effect.♦
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