Philadelphia Orchestra presents ‘British Isles Festival, Week Two’ (second review)

The Philadelphians salute Scotland

It was no surprise that, as the central jewel of its British Isles tribute this month, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin offered a program of two works inspired by the music and spirit of Scotland. One of these was written by Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016), a contemporary British composer who lived out his final years in the wild Scottish archipelago known as Orkney.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Gary Hughes, pipe corporal with the Philadelphia Police & Fire Pipes and Drums. Lang may his lum reek. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Davies was one of the most versatile and creative composers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Some commentators refer dismissively to his An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise as a light piece. But it contains a maelstrom of ideas, emotions, and affections in a delightful but sometimes ominous work.

First the storm

From the first notes, the composition breaks abruptly from the orchestra and flares into the farthest reaches of Verizon Hall like an almost visible sprite, then speaks with woodwind voices edged aside by assertive horn and trumpet passages. The entire work moves and quivers relentlessly, mixing almost intolerable discord (brief, and thereby effective) with lilting Scottish airs, sweet melodies, and drunken syncopations.

Perhaps the highlight of the entire program was the appearance in the back of the hall of Pipe Corporal Gary Hughes of the Philadelphia Police & Fire Pipes and Drums (he’s also a Kimmel Center security officer). In full regimental regalia with the unit’s own trademarked tartan pattern, he played the work’s final lilting air.

As Hughes strode by my aisle seat, I could feel the spirit of my Glasgow-born grandfather reminding me to drink a cup o’ kindness to Scottish national poet Bobbie Burns this Thursday on his birthday, January 25.

Then the bloom

This concert program was enjoyable in so many ways. An especially edifying performance was offered by associate concertmaster Juliette Kang in Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op. 46, which could well be considered his fourth violin concerto. Playing without a score, Kang’s playing was spellbinding, from her bright upper register down to the velvety depths of the dark lower notes.

It was a pleasure to watch her make eye contact with Nézet-Séguin throughout the performance, his smiles encouraging and reinforcing her artistic decisions. Ah, that last movement, with its fiendishly difficult variations, which seem to spiral up into the air. The conductor beamed like a proud older brother, presenting one of the orchestra’s own as a world-class soloist.

After several curtain calls, Kang treated the audience to an encore, the “Bourée” from Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B minor for solo violin, BWV 1002, performing the short dance with nimble technique and penetrating insight.

After intermission, without score or baton, Nézet-Séguin conducted Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, the “Scottish.” This was a well-balanced, exciting take on a familiar work, emphasizing its emotional richness.

A conductor liberated from score and baton is like a potter drawing out beauty and utility from raw clay, molding it into sculptural perfection. You can almost see him pulling the notes at just the right intensity from the choir of cellos.

The second movement, at breakneck speed, was a little quick for my taste. However, it fit Nézet-Séguin’s plan for the overall effect of the sections and their culmination. Here I felt a sense of heading out onto the high seas with nothing but good omens and safe voyage ahead.

To read Cameron Kelsall's review, click here

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