Philadelphia Orchestra presents ‘Hilary Hahn Plays Bernstein’

Plato and friends

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in the year’s final subscription concert, Hillary Hahn Plays Bernstein, went backward chronologically with the three works on this program. The concert began with a piece from 2017 and ended with the one of last great works of the 19th century. In subject matter, however, the concert reached back to antiquity. 

Violinist Hilary Hahn brought great refinement and feeling to her solo. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

The evening began with Thomas Adès’s suite from his early opera Powder Her Face. Adès has now twice recycled it as an orchestral suite, with the latest, expanded version only just completed. Now 46, the composer captured international attention soon after his appearance on the British musical scene in the 1990s. His latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, just premièred at the Met.

Whether he will live up to his early hype is another question. He is an able and facile musician who can move easily between styles. Making a virtue of necessity, critics have praised him for his eclecticism. However, Powder Her Face raises the question of whether or not eclecticism is really decadence.

The opera deals with the adventures of a debauched duchess (a sportive take, perhaps, on Alban Berg’s Lulu). But with its jazzy, bluesy overtones and frank indulgence in cocktail music mixed with modernist patter, it drags out its half-hour of orchestral dress as all vocabulary with nothing to say.

The orchestra played with a relaxed elegance but also precise attention to detail — Adès is a brilliant colorist — but it all seemed a technical exercise in the end. The Kimmel Center audience offered it a reception so tepid that silence might have been less embarrassing. I have heard much better from Adès before, and hope to again. But he will not, as some once hoped, be the man to take classical music out of its current compositional rut.

'Symposium' and Serenade

Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp, and Percussion is probably the most frequently performed American work for violin and orchestra after the Samuel Barber Concerto. The Symposium is, of course, Plato’s great dialogue on love. Although one can listen to the Serenade as a purely abstract work, there’s an added dimension in considering it as a meditation on the many aspects of the central experience of human life.

From the bawdiness of pleasure to the communion of souls to the anguish of heartbreak, all are refracted through Bernstein’s vivid personality and, shall we say, extensive experience. The music begins with an extended passage on the violin leading to the orchestral response, like a swimmer shyly entering the water.

Stravinsky famously frowned on pairing the solo violin with other strings. Bernstein, however, gets plenty of contrast and variety from the shifting sonorities of his choirs and from strategically placed duets, with sharp accents from a restlessly deployed percussion battery. The orchestra’s current artist-in-residence, Hilary Hahn, brought great refinement of feeling and tone to the solo role. Perhaps it was even a bit too much, as she missed the sexual rowdiness that is an essential part of the score.     

Musical microbits

Jan Sibelius’s First Symphony, which concluded the program, also begins with a very eloquent solo passage, performed on clarinet by the inimitable Ricardo Morales. It is the very opening statement of Sibelius’s great symphonic oeuvre and a calculated gesture. The orchestra soon joins with a full-throated proclamation of the first movement’s opening theme, which recurs in climactically dramatic form at the work’s end.

We tend to think of Sibelius in terms of massed sound, but in fact his music is mostly made up of musical microbits, passed from one instrument to another, building an overall sonic world. The First Symphony is clearly indebted to Bruckner, with his alterations of large sound-blocks and delicate solo passages. Sibelius seeks to go beyond him in integrating the architecture, a project that independently preoccupied Mahler.

How Sibelius achieves it is still a mystery — isn’t all great and pioneering art? — but the First, like most of his major compositions, was at least twice reworked. To some critics it has been an outlier among his symphonies. But it seems to me the essential ingredients of his mature genius are all here.

Nézet-Séguin offered a rousing, if not greatly searching, account of the score, but Sibelius is a particularly elusive composer. He’s easy enough to nail in the big passages but more difficult to follow through ruminative thickets.

The First does offer some guideposts. For example, the quiet two-note ending of the opening movement returns in the finale after the music’s grandest climax to put the work as a whole to bed.  You have to remember the point: great weight poised on the smallest of gestures. Unfortunately, Nézet-Séguin was so preoccupied with the climax that its final notes simply dropped as a shrug.

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