Kensho Watanabe’s Philadelphia Orchestra debut

Trial by baton

“Yannick and Trifonov Reunited!” announced a Philadelphia Orchestra flyer in advance of last weekend’s concerts. The ensuing near-sellout crowds at Verizon Hall seemed justified: after all, what could be more exciting than the reunion of two heartthrobs, the orchestra’s exuberant conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Russian piano prodigy Daniil Trifonov, especially when paired with the East Coast premiere of Mason Bates’s futuristic Alternative Energy?

Watanabe's debut: A drama no musical marketer could have contrived. (Photo by Andrew Bogard.)

High drama

What indeed? Well, how about the conducting debut of a young assistant tossed into the mix at the last minute?

After leading the first two performances on Thursday and Friday, Yannick was stricken with a sudden virus on Saturday. In his incapacitation, the baton was handed to 29-year-old Kensho Watanabe, who signed on as the orchestra’s assistant conductor just last fall and was mostly known only to the juvenile audiences at the Orchestra’s Saturday-morning family concerts.

Barely eight years ago Watanabe was studying cell biology at Yale. He had never before conducted an orchestra subscription concert; now he was called upon to lead, without preparation, Mozart’s long, demanding, and rarely performed Ninth Piano Concerto, not to mention Bates’s even less frequently performed (albeit delightfully innovative) Alternative Energy, which combines conventional orchestration with sound effects reminiscent of P.D.Q. Bach.

Higher reward

To be sure, Watanabe earned a conducting degree four years ago from the Curtis Institute of Music, and he was Yannick’s conducting fellow before joining the orchestra. But still. Not since 1950, when 20-year-old Roberta Peters was called upon to sing Zerlina at the Met's Don Giovanni with five hours’ notice and no rehearsal, has a musical performer been saddled with such a critical role in such a major venue with so little preparation.

This was the sort of high drama no musical marketer could have contrived.

I am happy to report that, with everyone in the house rooting for him, including the musicians, Trifonov, and Bates — who was perched at the rear of the stage during Alternative Energy — Watanabe passed his test with flying colors. Standing ovations following the final three pieces seemed directed more at him than at his illustrious guest soloists.

Yannick was back on the podium Sunday, and Watanabe’s conducting future remains to be seen. But if it does take off, those of us in the audience Saturday will be able to say we were present at the creation.

To read Linda Holt's review, click here.

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