Last December, the Philadelphia Orchestra named Nathalie Stutzmann its principal guest conductor-designate. She makes her first appearance in that capacity on the current Digital Stage offering, putting her spirited spin on two familiar Beethoven works.
Stutzmann in Philadelphia
Local audiences first encountered Stutzmann as a contralto soloist in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the Orchestra in 1997. Although she still occasionally performs vocal music—a new solo recording is forthcoming in February—her attention has largely turned to conducting since she founded the chamber ensemble Orfeo 55 a decade ago.
Her range is as admirable as her résumé. I first heard her conduct Handel’s Messiah in 2016—a fairly safe assignment for someone who specializes in Baroque and early modern music. She made a stronger impression, however, when she returned in 2019, leading two sets of subscription concerts featuring Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn, Bruch, and Mendelssohn.
Such versatility suits a potential principal conductor, who spends several weeks each season working closely with the orchestra. I’m especially eager to hear her tackle the Austro-German repertoire that Yannick Nézet-Séguin has made a touchstone of his tenure as music director.
“A huge fan”
The current program is slim but distinctive, a mere 45 minutes of music. Interspersed throughout are interviews with Stutzmann herself, as well as concertmaster David Kim and assistant principal second violin Dara Morales.
Stutzmann considers how her experience as a vocalist translates effortlessly to the podium—rather than pedagogically explaining her ideas to the orchestra members, she can simply sing a melody to put them on the same page. Symphonic musicians are not known for effusively praising conductors, but Kim makes his feelings known: “I just adore her,” he says. “I’m a huge fan.”
The rapport between Stutzmann and the corps was evident in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, which here had the intimacy of chamber music and a whiff of historically informed performance techniques. Stutzmann favored a fast tempo, which the orchestra effortlessly supplied, and clean intonation from the strings. She shaped a narrative that never lagged, and the performance underlined the risks Beethoven took in this first youthful outing into the symphonic form—it’s easy to forget that his third-movement Menuetto (Allegro molto e vivace) essentially invented our modern conception of a scherzo.
Well on her way
In an odd bit of organizing, the evening proper closed with the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven’s only ballet, it now seems a precursor to the “program music” of the 19th and early 20th century when played on its own. The overture depicts Prometheus stealing fire from the realm of the Gods, and Stutzmann infused the music with an appropriate amount of drama and tension. Given her natural inclination toward theatricality, one hopes that her future assignments with the orchestra will include operas and oratorios.
In general, the orchestra’s Beethoven sounds leaner and more focused due to the restrictions on ensemble size caused by Covid-19. I choose to view it as an unintended silver lining, and I hope at least the attitude remains in place when in-person performances with large groupings can resume. Perhaps the intimate configuration is also what kept the program’s surprise encore, Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, from dipping into the Romantic excess I usually associate with the piece.
Or perhaps that was due to Stutzmann’s obvious intelligence. This streaming concert shows that she is already well on her way to becoming indispensable.
Image description: Nathalie Stutzmann, a white woman with short wavy brown hair, conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, her arms outstretched and a baton in her right hand. She wears a face mask with the Philadelphia Orchestra logo on it and there are a violinist and two cellists, all wearing masks, playing near her.
What, When, Where
An Evening With Beethoven. The Philadelphia Orchestra. Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor. Beethoven, Symphony No. 1 in C Major and Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. Streamed from Verizon Hall on January 28, 2021. Streaming remains available through 11pm on February 4, 2021 ($17 rental fee). (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.