The Philadelphia Orchestra presents ‘Yannick and Emanuel Ax’ (first review)

How to ride a warhorse

How is classical music doing? It depends on whose hands it’s in. Wednesday night’s gala Carnegie Hall opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new season featured a suite from a Broadway musical, another from a film score, and a deconstruction of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the hands of Lang Lang and Chick Correa. 

Ax: Just one sour note. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

That program, and its performance, showed two disturbing trends: the blurring of lines between the orchestra and the Philly Pops, and the tendency of trendy performers to pull great works apart like taffy to exhibit their virtuosity. Music has to make its living like everything else, and artists have to have interpretive freedom, but there are lines you cross at your peril.

Obviously, this isn’t merely a local problem; consider Alan Gilbert’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic. Gilbert came aboard with plans to explore new and neglected repertory. He left for a less prestigious post in Europe after progressively dumbing down the Philharmonic’s programs and seeing the renovation of its hall (a long saga in Philadelphia, too) put off and finally abandoned.

Well, excuuuuse me

The serious season did begin Friday. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra in major works by Mozart and Tchaikovsky and the local premiere of a new work by Texas-born composer Wayne Oquin, a mini-concerto for organ and orchestra titled Resilience, featuring the redoubtable Paul Jacobs. This last work, which opened the program, had an exuberant feel and featured delicately textured exchanges between the organ and different solo instruments and choirs. Jacobs’s pedal-point cadenza near the end of the work exhibited genuine virtuosity.

It is hard to pick a genre in which Mozart excelled more than any other, but no one embodied the concept of soloist and orchestra more perfectly than he did in his mature piano concertos. The last of these, No. 27 in B-flat, begins with an extended orchestral introduction. The piano slips seamlessly into the proceedings at its first entrance. With pauses only for its cadenzas and the occasional instrumental solo, it creates a sublimely integrated texture for an unflagging flow of invention, figuration, and dialogue. 

Soloist Emanuel Ax has been a happy fixture for Philadelphia Orchestra audiences since his first appearance in 1975. This will be a Mozart year for him, with performances of six of the concertos with the orchestras of both Saint Louis and Sydney. Ax remains a formidable technician and his performances have the authority of long devotion. He was in particularly fine form in the B-flat major, assertive and even occasionally imperious, but never exceeding proper proportion. The only sour note came not onstage but on paper, in the program, which invited us at one point to think of “Steve Martin playing a banjo with a fake arrow piercing his head.” I passed on that.

The longest Fourth

The orchestra had the stage to itself in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This work, although solidly ensconced in the repertory, is less performed than it once was, partly because the first three symphonies, once virtually ignored, now compete with the latter three for attention. The Fourth dates from a difficult time in Tchaikovsky’s life, when he made a brief but disastrous foray into marriage. It is easy enough to read tribulation in some of its more overheated passages, but I think it’s best heard as a work of striking range and expressiveness within a carefully plotted structure, and an important step in his maturation as a symphonist.

The orchestra was beautifully responsive, with richness in the brass, superb highlights in the winds, and finesse in the strings, particularly in the Scherzo’s sustained pizzicati. Nézet-Séguin, in introductory remarks, noted it was his first performance of the Fourth with the orchestra and, for him, an opportunity to rethink the work. There were crisp attacks and effectively introspective moments but also evidence of an increasing mannerism, with exaggerated contrasts of volume and tempo. Slower passages, particularly in the Andantino, were taken with a deliberation that reminded one of Christoph Eschenbach, whereas faster ones were often given the whip. 

The result was, at 45 minutes, the longest Fourth I have ever heard. Nézet-Séguin slowed some of his passages nearly to a full stop, which can work in Mahler but, except in the Pathétique symphony, does not for Tchaikovsky. The contrast of this with other passages taken at a gallop made for a choppiness that adversely affected the work as a whole. It is an indulgence Nézet-Séguin would do well to check.   

To read Linda Holt's review, click here.

Our readers respond

Doug King

of Pennsville, NJ on October 09, 2017

The Lang Lang/Chick Correa performance alluded to in this review was only performed in Carnegie Hall, not at the Kimmel Center. Was the reviewer even at the concert?!

Richard Grande

of South Philadelphia, PA on October 09, 2017

I second Doug King`s remarks. I attended both Friday and Thursday evening; Lang Lang did not appear here, but a young pianist named Harmony Zhu did in a non pops item: first movement of Beethoven First piano concerto. And the Tchaikovsky #4 was not 45 minutes long —perhaps 42 minutes or so, standard length I`d say for that symphony. Not the longest for that piece.

Dan Rottenberg

of Philadelphia, PA on October 10, 2017

I attended the orchestra's Saturday night concert, which transpired just as Robert Zaller described it. His first three paragraphs referred in passing to the orchestra's concert Wednesday (in New York), with Lang Lang, and its gala opening on Thursday. The rest of the review focused on what Robert described as the orchestra's "serious season"—  the three Verizon Hall concerts that began Friday night without Lang Lang and his attendant gimmickry, an absence that I personally welcomed.

Doug King

of Pennsville, NJ on October 10, 2017

Sorry, Dan, but Mr. Zaller doesn't use the word "Wednesday" anywhere in his review. He writes that "Thursday night’s gala opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new season featured a suite from a Broadway musical, another from a film score, and a deconstruction of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the hands of Lang Lang and Chick Correa." The reference to Lang Lang and Chick Correa is NOT true, as I commented above.

Author's Response

Thank you for the correction. The piece has been updated. 

Wendell Banyay

of Clayton, DE on October 11, 2017

The Tchaikovsky performance was a big disappointment. Tempos within movements seemed to have no relationship. OK, I understand it was Yannick's way, and he is entitled to it. More disturbing to me were the balances, actually the lack of balances, especially in the outer movements. A loud blur was what I heard; no chance of following the musical lines. Just because you can, should you......?

The world's great orchestras and music deserve better than what I heard Saturday night. One of Bruno Walter's sayings during rehearsals was, "The music demands ......." Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony deserved better than it got.

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