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

Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Oquin, oh my

The Philadelphia Orchestra is back, offering two repertoire stalwarts and an exciting new work at this past weekend’s season opener. I attended the last of three performances of this program, a pretty much full-house Sunday matinee.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads Oquin's 'Resilience' with organ soloist Paul Jacobs. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin was joined by organist Paul Jacobs in the East Coast premiere of Wayne Oquin’s Resilience, for organ and orchestra. The composer, a 39-year-old Texas native, joined the orchestra and soloist for a bow at the conclusion of this complex, engaging work.

Two soloists, two successes

As its name would suggest, Resilience offers us plenty of Sturm und Drang in the first of three movements. It lingers in a lyrical, almost questioning mode throughout the second, and rebounds in the third movement with vivacity and determination. The second movement is particularly intriguing, emphasizing the woodwind origins of the pipe organ.

Of course, nothing could be further from the pipes of Pan than the Fred J. Cooper memorial organ, sprawling like a sci-fi behemoth over the Verizon Hall stage. Its resonance in full throttle is enough to liquefy the marrow in your bones. A familiar presence at these concerts, Jacobs was at ease and in full command of the instrument. He wowed the crowd with some fancy pedal work in the last movement that, yes, was musically integral to this largely tonal, accessible, robust composition.

Renowned pianist Emanuel Ax joined the orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s final piano concerto, the 27th in B-flat major. It’s a work of pure sunshine and delight, with a few shadows of foreboding (the composer died at age 35 the year of the work’s premiere in 1791).

Ax always looks happy, and why not? Mozart lives in his soul. What could be more delightful? This performance was neither spectacular nor showy, but, like Goldilocks’s porridge, was just right. The work can be a minefield for lesser pianists, rife as it is with tedious Alberti bass riffs that can be annoying if not subdued.

Yet there is a passage in the first movement that comes out of the blue around measures 226 to 230, about seven minutes into the piece. You would swear an angel entered the concert hall sprinkling stardust, making all the world’s pain disappear.

Buried in frenzy

Less satisfying for me was the final work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in F minor, the first of the Russian composer’s three “big symphonies.” It is a great work, reflecting on not only purely musical conundrums but also on the anguished life of its author at this time, struggling with his own sexuality and the burden of overwhelming genius.

Some of this came out in the second and third movements, which featured exquisite woodwind playing (thank you, Richard Woodhams, principal oboe, and Daniel Matsukawa, principal bassoon). The orchestra overall survived the decision to play the first and fourth movements faster and louder than ever before, in keeping with the “classical music as pop entertainment” model we seem to be forced to embrace at this point in history. Here, I fear, I am in the small minority, as the large audience — a sight we crave to see and experience at all classical venues — roared its approval before the work concluded.

To me, speed and dynamics distorted the meaning. It is the conductor’s role to elucidate and clarify text, not bury it in frenzy and opacity. There is much going on in this music that is lost in the overtones and rattles generated by too much, too fast. But such is the world we live in. There should be many approaches to interpreting and performing the classical repertoire, and this is one of them.

To read Robert Zaller's review, click here.

Our readers respond

John L. Baji

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on October 12, 2017

I have a question about Linda Holt's review on the Philadelphia Orchestra's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto #27 with Emanuel Ax. She referred to the piece having "tedious Alberti bass riffs." What is an Alberti bass riff? Thanks.

Author's Response

An Alberti bass is a repeated series of broken chords in the left hand that supports the melody, contributes harmony, and moves the work along. Imagine you are playing a melody with your right hand, and you are playing an accompaniment with your left. 

Let's say the key is C major (no sharps and flats). Your right hand is playing a charming tune, while your left hand chugs along evenly playing C-G-E-G and C-G-E-G (in this case you could be using these left-hand fingers in sequence: pinkie, thumb, middle finger, thumb) and after a few repeats, you might move up or down on the keyboard to express another broken chord, maybe F-C-A-C repeated a few more times. This kind of accompaniment can be quite pleasant and effective, or it can be heavy-handed and sound like something out of Mozart's Musical Joke: it's all up to the performer!
 

Google Alberti bass for some more examples. Here's a written example (not the one I used) from Wikipedia:

 

Mozart's Piano Sonata, K 545 opening. 

David M. Perkins

of Denver, CO on October 14, 2017

Two of the hallmarks of Tchaikovsky's music are passion and melody, but Linda Holt is correct in noting that it is a serious mistake when those hallmarks take precedence over the nuance and subtlety that Tchaikovsky carefully worked into all his scores. His Fourth Symphony is full of distinct shadings and musical ingenuities that get lost when it is performed as a loud, crowd-pleasing warhorse, all surface and no depth.

Holt's review is exactly the kind of intelligent criticism I look for in a music review, and conductors and orchestras would do well to pay attention.

Editor's Response

Thanks for your kind words about Linda's work. We're pretty proud to have her!

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