An email landed in my inbox earlier this week trumpeting the imminent return of in-person performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m surely not alone among local music lovers in welcoming this news. It’s been 406 days as of this writing since I took a seat in Verizon Hall and heard our world-class musicians play live, and there’s not much else to say except I miss it. Although I’ve regularly consumed recorded music throughout my life, nothing compares.
That said, there are elements of this past digital season from the Philadelphians that have been a net positive—and I don’t just mean the favorable commute to the couch. The restraints inflicted by the pandemic created something of a refresh, a good moment to look at different combinations, different composers, and different arrangements. In many ways, it offers an opportunity to reconsider what a classical concert program can be.
No stranger to the symphony hall
I thought of this frequently during the most recent streaming concert, which takes Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as its centerpiece. This piece is no stranger to the symphony hall, where it’s usually heard in its lavish orchestral arrangement. Here, though, it is played in its original jazz-band setting from 1924, a small scale interpretation that captures the clash between classical forms and emerging jazz sensibilities that the composer embedded within the music. It’s not a version you’re likely to hear from a typical subscription series.
The result isn’t always ideal, either. There are isolated moments of pure hedonistic pleasure, like Ricardo Morales’s wailing clarinet in the familiar opening bars, which sounds both polished and improvised. The impressive brass section anchors the piece. There is a pleasant looseness in the strings. But somehow, it doesn't entirely gel.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin does his best to balance the tension between the interloping solo piano and the orchestral forces, but the overall impact is somewhat shapeless. And while pianist Aaron Diehl approaches the cadenzas with refinement and precision, passion is in short supply. For a work meant to capture the teeming energy of the modern, bustling city, the results feel slightly suburban. Still, it’s good to step outside your comfort zone.
Ellington and Stravinsky
Though brief, Duke Ellington’s Solitude, heard in Morton Gould’s arrangement, strikes me as an ideal example of an orchestra not merely stepping outside its comfort zone, but welcoming an unfamiliar piece of repertoire into its world. The performance retains the soft-grained loveliness you experience in recordings by Ellington’s own orchestra, but with an added classical shimmer that verges on Straussian. Harpist Elizabeth Hainen is the MVP, with each plucked note sounding like a teardrop hitting someone’s cheek.
In a sense, arrangement serves as the program’s theme. The final work of the evening is the Suite from Pulcinella, crafted by Stravinsky from music believed to be written by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). The authorship is not questioned, but the resulting composition is decidedly Stravinskian, a neo-Baroque mixture of jocularity, surprising insight, and a respect for the classics tempered with a hearty dose of irreverence. That could also describe the Philadelphians’ spritely performance, which is a joy from top to bottom.
Pulcinella functions as a perfect opportunity to spotlight individual voices within the orchestra. Here, it shows off principal trumpet David Bilger’s militaristic precision, trombonist Nitzan Haroz’s sly humor (especially in the “Vivo” section), and flutist Jeffrey Khaner’s ethereal sound quality, earthy and stylish all at once. Newly installed principal oboe Philippe Tondre is unafraid to be sassy, while his counterpart, Jonathan Blumenfeld, takes a more refined approach.
The pandemic stretched institutions and forced them to adapt. There is clearly still room for growth in some areas. (The bill offered this week is still 100 percent male and mostly white.) But I hope the sense of ingenuity and inventiveness that has emerged over the past year remains when we’re all back in Verizon Hall, making and hearing music together again.
Image description: A collage of three black-and-white photos, one each of Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, and Duke Ellington.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Orchestra. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Aaron Diehl, piano. Ellington, Solitude; Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue; Stravinsky, Suite from Pulcinella. Available on demand through Thursday, April 22, 2021 ($17 rental fee). (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.