Philadelphia Orchestra presents Grieg, Sibelius, and Salonen

New spin on old favorites

Last weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert, under principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève’s baton, featured Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2: venerable Gandalfs and Dumbledores in the world of classical repertoire. The third work, Salonen’s “Nyx,” is barely seven years old, a Fearless Girl staring down authority. But all three were delivered with a panache that left me clamoring for more.

Piano soloist Lars Vogt. (Photo by Neda Navaee)

"Startlingly modern presentation"

Maestro Denève invigorated two classics so familiar I had almost stopped hearing their messages. In the Grieg, I could only imagine the conductor in rehearsal standing before these seasoned musicians, saying, “Imagine this is the first time you've ever seen or heard this concerto. Approach this fresh, new work with your sharpest intellect and deepest emotion. Play as though your life depends on it!”

He probably didn’t say that, but the effect sure felt like it. Soloist Lars Vogt was on the same page. The piano entered spectacularly after a drumroll in the first movement, and Vogt immediately commanded our attention with original expression, even within just a few bars. The balance of power, passion, originality, and intelligence sustained his playing throughout the work, in full partnership with the orchestra.

During pauses, Vogt looked around at the other musicians and conversed with them musically throughout the performance. Dramatic phrasing sometimes gave way to moments of unexpected tenderness, while chords other pianists might simply pound took on an evasive air of grace. There was nothing clichéd or ho-hum about his reading, nor about Denève’s interpretation. Piano and orchestra merged forces in a startlingly modern presentation. I really did feel like I was hearing the Grieg for the first time, and it felt good.

Daughter of Chaos, mother of Sleep

I didn’t think things could improve, but after intermission came the program’s final work, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, one of the most popular symphonic works composed in the 20th century’s early years. This symphony speaks clearest to us in the language of music, not according to the various programs ascribed to it. (Was it inspired by Don Giovanni? Religion? Revolution?)

A lushly romantic work, the Second builds on motifs rather than extended melodies in its first three movements. Subtle influences by other composers abound, even suggesting music to come, as in a trumpet melody about six minutes into the second movement foreshadowing Hovhaness (born nearly 10 years after this was composed). Denève emphasized silence in several parts of the score, creating a sense of space arching between pillars of sound or of an electrical charge sizzling between two poles.

Principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève reinvigorated the classics. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)
Principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève reinvigorated the classics. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)

Each of the first three movements has a yearning, leading quality that Denève molded and encouraged with sensitivity. The listener isn’t sure where all this urgent longing will go until the final chapter’s manifesto of certainty and resolution. That movement is a huge, glorious experience, especially with this orchestra and this conductor. Denève took his audience on a journey of great passion and intensity, controlled and directed by reason and understanding.

Sibelius’s final exultant chords, which seem to say, “Amen,” tie back to the beginning of the concert. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Nyx” sauntered on the dark side of human experience. Named for the Greek goddess of night, daughter of Chaos and mother of Sleep, “Nyx” commemorates the birth of the “yin” elements of existence: slumber, darkness, pain, deceit, anxiety, death.

Scored for a large orchestra, the work begins with elaborate conversation among the horns, a kind of chaotic dance that gives birth to the complex musical escapades to come. Other instruments emerge from the shadows, including a single clarinet seeming to float on a cushion of strings. Like breath, the work expands and contracts from stentorian bombast to languid interludes, with sheets of sound shifting seismically. Chimes and bells make quick entrances and exits. This is not your grandmother’s idea of night. There is more anxiety and apprehension, sometimes resulting in uncomfortable sounds, but out of this tension a final whisper, like a firefly set free from a trap, escapes the orchestra and disappears into the dark.

To read Dan Rottenberg's review, click here.

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Philadelphia, PA on April 26, 2017

Thank you for this well-earned and well-expressed praise of the concert from last weekend. I hope the excellent pianist Lars Vogt was not conversing with the orchestra — and I was attentive to his constant turning to the violin section, but also felt that he really revolutionized the Grieg Piano Concerto, which can be so saccharin. Mr. Vogt made it crystal clear and relatively unblurred by pedal, although he may have left a few notes behind. And Jennifer Montone certainly deserves praise for her horn playing. Enjoyed your review thoroughly.

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