Swept away in six minutes

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Anna Clyne and Rachmaninoff

5 minute read
Innovation, imagination, and audience appeal: British composer Anna Clyne. (Photo by Jennifer Taylor.)
Innovation, imagination, and audience appeal: British composer Anna Clyne. (Photo by Jennifer Taylor.)

Call it the mouse that roared. Composer Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, a snippet of rollicking music for a large-scale modern orchestra, stole the show this weekend as Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened the last Philadelphia Orchestra concert of the current season.

Swept away

Masquerade immediately swept the audience away, inspired by London’s promenade concerts of the 18th century and dedicated to Britain’s latter-day Proms audiences. At the age of 39, the London-born Clyne has earned a reputation for innovation, imagination, and high marks for audience appeal on the concert stage. Music rippled visually through the players in a wave of energy as the ensemble recreated the spirit of masquerade, a sort of entertainment designed to precede and follow a large dinner party. A stage full of instruments including kazoos, a motor horn, and even a vibraslap, a modern-day descendent of a vibrating jaw bone, grabbed the attention of listeners and wouldn’t let go.

In little more than the length of a folk song, the work created a diverse tapestry of sound embracing the chatter of castanets, a fleeting imitation of an Irish penny whistle, and the brilliance of the trumpet’s stuttering call at a corrida de toros.

Ribbons of melody dodged potshots from the percussion section, as the work continued to swell like an ocean tide grown manic. Think of all your favorite John Williams scores popped in a pot and percolating for less than the time it takes to hear the overture to Marriage of Figaro.

Welcome back, Woodhams

Speaking of Mozart, the centerpiece of this weekend’s concert was the return of recently retired oboist Richard Woodhams in another work memorializing the fleeting pleasures of light entertainment: the Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, K. 297b, for winds and orchestra. Scholars debate whether this work was actually written by Mozart, though it bears his characteristic charm and grace.

Jennifer Montone on the horn, Richard Morales on the clarinet, and Daniel Matsukawa on the bassoon (all principals for their instruments’ sections) joined Woodhams. The soloists stood in front of the ensemble, much diminished in size after the Clyne selection, almost as though this were a concerto for quartet and small orchestra.

The cheerful expressions and demeanors of the soloists (and, of course, Nézet-Séguin, who is always in a good mood) set the tone for this light and delightful work. Musical purists who insist on not a cough or sneeze during performances would not have approved of this selection’s original purpose as background music for dinner parties, where a steady hum of conversation would, in effect, provide the basso continuo.

It was a joy to hear the recently retired Richard Woodhams again. (Photo by Jessica Griffin.)
It was a joy to hear the recently retired Richard Woodhams again. (Photo by Jessica Griffin.)

It was a joy to hear Woodhams once again, and never better. His tone is clear and steady, with a sinuous mingling in particular with Morales’s sweet clarinet passages. What a delightful work, with no personal, political, or religious agenda: just delicious melodies passed back and forth among the soloists like feathers on an April breeze, echoed in the orchestra’s cradle, tended by the conductor with tenderness and gratitude.

Then there was Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 concluded the program. While Nézet-Séguin was magnificent in bringing out the tonal richness and expressive dynamics of this rather lengthy composition (45 minutes), there really wasn’t much musical material to work with. An original score for the First doesn’t exist; it may have been lost during the Russian Revolution. The first performance in 1897 met with crushing critical reviews (in one, the talented composer César Cui lamented the piece’s “sickly perverse harmonization” and expected it would delight the denizens of hell), though harmonization is the least of this work’s problems.

Another critic, Nicholas Findeisen, did offer Rachmaninoff a slight ray of hope: “some of its pages seem far from mediocre,” he beamed, but this was not enough to forestall the composer’s breakdown. Fortunately, through a course of therapy that included hypnotism, Rachmaninoff regained his compositional chops and went on to compose some of the most beautiful music of the 20th century.

The musical quarry

Rachmaninoff never went back to the First Symphony. The version we hear today was reconstructed after his death (1944) from individual instrument parts and a two-piano version. The work consists of motifs, some of which are developed, some not. There are Russian folk-tune influences, bits of Russian chant, and rhythmic patterns that appear in different guises throughout four movements, but there is nothing of substance to challenge or impress. I like to think of this work as the quarry where marble is chopped up and pushed around, one day leading to the creation of great works of sculpture. The quarry itself is a dry, brittle wasteland, but without it, would there be Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s The Kiss?

The reconstruction of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 is well worth study and reflection, if only as a proving ground for understanding later works. Many advocates and lovers of contemporary art music don’t like the lush romanticism associated with Rachmaninoff, and for them, the intense construction of motivic elements in this work may offer the same kind of cerebral satisfaction later generated by 12-tone theorists. Certainly, Nézet-Séguin infused his interpretation with an emphasis on all that is sonorous, Russian, and dynamic, making the best of a work that deserves to be heard, but not often.

While the Orchestra’s 2018-19 season is now at an end, performances will continue at the Mann Center throughout the summer, kicking off with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on June 24. The Orchestra performing the Ninth is the Philly music-lover’s equivalent of the Phillies winning the World Series or the Eagles owning the Super Bowl, so make a point of heading out to West Fairmont Park next week.

What, When, Where

The Philadelphia Orchestra 2018-2019 season closer. Anna Clyne, Masquerade; Mozart, Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for winds and orchestra, K. 297b; and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Richard Woodhams, oboe; Ricardo Morales, clarinet; Daniel Matsukawa, bassoon; Jennifer Montone, horn. The Philadelphia Orchestra. June 15 and 16, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org

Verizon Hall and the Kimmel Center are ADA-accessible and have options for blind or low-vision individuals. With advance notice, Patron Services can accommodate personal care attendants and provide American Sign Language interpretation, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services. For more info, call (215) 893-1999 or (215) 893-1999 TTY, or email [email protected].

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