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Nathalie Stutzmann made her first appearance as principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, almost a year to the day after her appointment was announced. Although the French musician has conducted in Philly intermittently since 2016—to say nothing of her parallel career as a contralto, in which guise she first appeared with the Orchestra in 1997—the performance of works by Schubert and Missy Mazzoli marked the start of a new chapter in this association. It also signaled a greater changing of the classical music guard.
Shifting the landscape
Women are represented in greater numbers on the podium now than ever before, which isn’t necessarily saying much. Stutzmann is the first woman to hold an artistic leadership role at this level in the 121-year history of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In October of this year, it was also confirmed that she would be taking on the directorship of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, becoming that symphony’s first female chief. Even with these two major milestones coming inside the span of a year, men still greatly outnumber women as leaders of American orchestras.
Stutzmann’s contract is a sign of progress toward parity, but more importantly, it establishes a formal relationship with one of the world’s most exciting conductors. Her first weekend of subscription concerts hinted at what she may be able to do with both repertory warhorses and new music.
Weaving it together
Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major is subtitled “The Great.” This is not a comment on its quality—though it certainly could be—but rather on its length, nearly an hour. It could also refer to the regularity with which it is programmed. An interpreter must not only thread the needle across four disparate movements but also bring a fresh perspective to the assignment, keeping the interest of listeners who’ve heard the piece dozens, if not hundreds, of times before.
Stutzmann did both. She stressed unification throughout, underlining the many motifs that recur throughout the symphony’s pseudo-narrative. Shifts in dynamics and tempo were handled seamlessly, which allowed the piece to retain its magisterial nature without sacrificing a sense of jollity. This was especially evident in the Andante, where the austere Alpine horn call that opens the movement gave way to transparently textured gossamer strings. Schubert was inspired by the natural world in his composition, and Stutzmann highlighted the lovely effects he embedded in the music, from gentle breezes and babbling brooks to bursts of thunder.
With a singer’s ear, she isolated the oboe and clarinet lines in the slow movement, foregrounding a sense of resignation and impending dread without introducing mawkishness. Principals Philippe Tondre and Ricardo Morales were at their level best here. Elsewhere, I heard the sprung string rhythms of the Allegro vivace as if for the first time—energetic and vibrant in a section that often drags. Schubert loved a false ending, almost to a detrimental degree, but Stutzmann kept the attention rapt with attention to detail and undeniably fresh ideas. As a listener, this is exactly what you want from a familiar work.
In contrast, Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) will be new to many, although the 41-year-old composer is well known to Philadelphia audiences. (Her opera Breaking the Waves, which Opera Philadelphia premiered in 2016, is a contemporary benchmark.) Mazzoli fits a fair amount into 10 minutes here, with the musical language changing almost measure to measure. At times you hear the lushness of Samuel Barber or true Romanticism, even in passages that evoke serialism; elsewhere, there’s a Coplandesque Americana to the sound. You can tell this is a composition that requires a conductor to exert influence and keep the steady string of thoughts moving effortlessly.
Stutzmann offered a tightly controlled opening, the music shimmering and buzzing on limitlessly sustained pitches. She drew attention to the subtle balances of traditional instruments and amplified interlopers, like a synthesizer that had the creepy quality of a celesta, and once again showed the importance of individual voices within the overall framework. An ethereal high flute line near the end of the work contrasted with a hard-charging tutti, and the intrusion of an insistent, staccato piano added an unsettling note to the work.
Perhaps because Stutzmann began her career as a soloist, she brings a noticeably presentational style to her conducting. She prowls the podium like a lynx, sometimes ready to lunge at a section. Precise time signatures often give way to sweeping, emphatic gestures—not unlike how you might see a proud parent cheering on a child at a sporting event. When she cued, she did so with warm, knowing movements. As with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Orchestra’s music director, her personality is big and showy. It is also endearing.
The bond with the musicians seems already cemented. In remarks before the Friday afternoon concert, concertmaster David Kim expressed the Orchestra’s sentiment at her appointment. “The relationship between a conductor and an orchestra is mysterious,” he said. “When it’s really special, the music-making rises to an extraordinary level.” So it did here. If these performances are a sign of the times, then long may she reign.
What, When, Where
Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres). Missy Mazzoli. Symphony No. 9 in C Major, D. 944 (“Great”). Franz Schubert. Conducted by Nathalie Stuzmann. The Philadelphia Orchestra. $10-$169. December 2-4 at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Center requires all attendees aged 12 years or older to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Attendees aged younger than 12 years must provide a negative test taken within 72 hours of the performance. Masks are required at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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