Memo to Yannick: You’re my man, but please skip the gimmicks

Yannick at cruising speed (2nd review)

4 minute read
Orchestra upstaged by a trapeze act: What would Jules Feiffer say?
Orchestra upstaged by a trapeze act: What would Jules Feiffer say?
Sitting in the audience just before Yannick Nézet-Séguin came on stage to conduct Stokowski's transcription of Bach's C minor Passacaglia and Fugue, I recognized a familiar feeling. I was awaiting Yannick's arrival with the same sort of day-before-Christmas anticipation I felt in 1960 whenever Leonard Bernstein came on stage at Carnegie Hall to lead the New York Philharmonic in a Mahler symphony.

In fact, I've been feeling that way about Orchestra concerts for quite some time now. Verizon Hall finally sounds as good as it looks, and the players seem to give Yannick the kind of adoring attention that Simon Rattle can elicit from them. I never could bring myself to call Bernstein "Lenny," but I am amazed at how natural "Yannick" has become for me, so powerful is the man's genial charisma.

This anticipation now extends to the 2013-14 season. After much discussion of which concerts we were unwilling to pass up, my wife and I easily agreed on seven.

My favorite pianist

I am already counting the days to one concert in particular. On December 7, Yannick will accompany Helene Grimaud's performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto and, after the intermission, will conduct Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

Grimaud is my favorite active pianist (Simone Dinnerstein and Jeremy Denk are very close seconds), the Brahms Second is my favorite piano concerto, and the Berlioz is my wife's favorite piece. Why the Orchestra doesn't categorize this as one of their "premium" concerts is beyond me.

The February 23rd concert was for my wife and me the end of several weeks of unusual concerts: the ridiculously and goofily pretentious John Cage festival staged by Bowerbird (and you're hearing this from somebody who thought Bowerbird's earlier Morton Feldman festival was a high-water mark in Philadelphia's musical life); the Pennsylvania Ballet's staging of Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, a work that perfectly distills the wit and joy of a Haydn symphony; a wonderful night of Tuva throat-singing at the Rotunda on the Penn campus; and, finally, on February 22nd, the weirdly geeky Orchestra 2001 concert reviewed by Tom Purdom. (Click here.)

Send me no sackbuts

It was fun to hear a new work by Kile Smith twice in a row, and, unlike Tom, I thoroughly enjoyed Jacob Druckman's piece for winds and tape, even if Druckman had obviously listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Junglinge a few times too many. But I just cannot warm up to the technical imperfections of Renaissance sackbuts and krummhorns. Extolling their virtues seems to me like trying to sell the superiority of a life without electricity and modern plumbing.

After all these concerts, my wife and I were ready to be open-minded about the necessity of "modernizing" Le Sacre, although the Stravinsky work hardly seems to need help in stimulating the imagination.

No other piece I can think of is so perennially vital and surprising, even if I feel I know every note by heart. Nézet-Séguin's reading more than did Le Sacre justice.

Shades of Jules Feiffer

But the add-ons were as embarrassingly trivializing and juvenile as the playing was transcendent. The visuals were bland at best, but at least they could be easily ignored.

The dancing was another matter: a trapeze act that contributed nothing to the musical experience but to add a patina of anxiety— and annoyance at having to be anxious— and a troupe of women who, more than anything else, made me recall Jules Feiffer's send-ups of modern dance in his cartoons for the Village Voice (for example, click here.)

I hope the Orchestra comes to realize that if the music-making continues at this incandescent level, there will be no further need for gimmicks.♦

To read another review of Le Sacre by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review of Le Sacre by Merilyn Jackson, click here.
To read a response colloquy between Kile Smith and Dan Coren, click here.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach-Stokowski, Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor; Ravel, Piano Concerto in G major; Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring"). Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Ridge Theater Company dancers; Dan Safer, choreography. February 23-24, 2013; also March 2, 2013 (without theatrical element) at Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Sts. (215) 893.1999 or

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