Out of the wilderness

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Beethoven and Iman Habibi

4 minute read
Yannick Nézet-Séguin & Iman Habibi smile on the Verizon Hall stage in front of a standing ovation, the orchestra behind them
A warm welcome: Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes a bow with composer Iman Habibi. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)

On March 12, 2020—just one day after the World Health Organization classified the Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic—the thunderous opening chords of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor rang out to an empty Verizon Hall, as the Philadelphia Orchestra adapted hastily to the new restrictions.

That performance, livestreamed on Facebook and later broadcast on WHYY, captured all the jittery emotions and uncertainty of that troubled moment in history. It’s only fitting that the same music was played, 570 days later, to welcome an audience back to the Kimmel Center on a raft of excitement and pleasure.

Open arms for the orchestra

The near-capacity crowd that filled the hall on October 3—all masked and fully vaccinated, save for the young children who had to provide negative Covid-19 tests—were ready to welcome their hometown band back with open arms. I counted no fewer than 10 applause breaks, beginning with the recorded pre-show announcement and continuing when concertmaster David Kim came onstage to tune the orchestra. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s entrance prompted a semi-standing ovation; the conclusion of Beethoven’s Fifth triggered the real thing.

It might have seemed slightly shameless if the sentiment wasn’t so sincere. Not only that—the reaction was entirely justified. Although the Philadelphians kept up their craft throughout the pandemic with a series of professionally filmed concerts—and Nézet-Séguin plied his trade leading other orchestras in Canada and Europe—one had to wonder if there would be any trepidation or imprecision as they dove back into live, in-person performances.

If there was, I didn’t hear it. This non-subscription concert, given two days prior to the season’s official opening night, could stand as an exemplary exploration of the standard repertory under any circumstances, with no mulligans needed. That it carried some additional poignancy only enhanced an already thrilling experience.

Sunny sounds

The afternoon opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C major, and it was immediately evident that the Orchestra had lost none of its power or precision. Nézet-Séguin coaxed the familiar “Philadelphia Sound” from the strings, who played in perfect concert, as if they were one instrument. The opening bars emerged with nimbleness and little vibrato, and Nézet-Séguin kept the forces at a controlled volume that almost suggested a chamber orchestra, which he maintained up until the arrival of the vivid tuttis for which this piece is known.

In brief remarks, the conductor mentioned that he programmed this symphony because it reflects a mood of “excessive joy.” That ebullience was certainly present in his interpretation. You could hear it in the gossamer interaction between oboist Philippe Tondre and flutist Jeffrey Khaner, as well as the wonderful timpani contributions from Angela Zator Nelson. Although Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony has earned the subtitle “Pastoral,” it’s the First that truly feels like an expression of nature’s beauty. This performance was drenched in sunlight.

Crying out for answers

As at the March 2020 concert, Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht (Every tree speaks) preceded the Fifth Symphony. The Iranian Canadian composer wrote the work to be in conversation with Beethoven, as well as to address the ongoing global climate catastrophe. In a program note, Habibi expressed his wish that the audience consider the music “in light of the climate crisis we live in, and the havoc we continue to wreak on the nature that inspired these classic masterpieces.”

Given the events of the last 18 months, it’s impossible not to consider Habibi’s brief tone poem in relation to the Covid catastrophe as well. The heavy sonorities build in tension and anguish over the course of 10 minutes, as proverbial shouts into the void are given voice through assertive brass, rumbling timpani, and unsettling string glissandi. In considering how far we’ve fled from Beethoven’s idealized conception of nature, Habibi appears to be crying out for answers that won’t come. Nézet-Séguin handled the piece’s bombast with admirable clarity, and he warmly greeted the composer, who was present, for a post-concert joint bow.

A joyful noise

The performance segued from Habibi to Beethoven without pause. It is possible to read a lot of negative emotion into the Fifth, and it has often surfaced as a favorite programming choice in troubled times. A sense of trauma did seem embedded in the Allegro con brio, and throughout, Nézet-Séguin drew attention to the shift between major and minor keys in a manner that underlined insecurity, if not chaos. There was also a feeling of sadness to be found in the whispered delicacy of the pizzicato playing in the Scherzo.

But there was plenty of happiness to be found, as in the exuberance of the double-bass trio and the feathered beauty of the piccolo that breaks into the symphony’s final bars. This performance announced that the Orchestra was back in business at the top of its game. And although there is much to be said in favor of digital pivots, it confirmed that the spirit of communion between musicians and audience cannot be replicated through a screen. When everyone leapt to their feet at the concert’s conclusion, they made a joyful noise to rival the four Beethoven chords that changed the world.

What, When, Where

Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 5. Beethoven, First and Fifth Symphonies. Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum spricht. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Philadelphia Orchestra. October 3, 2021, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.

All audience members over 12 years of age must show proof of full vaccination to attend. Audience members younger than 12 years must provide a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the event. Masks are required at all times. Seating is not socially 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.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation