The Philadelphia Orchestra delighted its audience with an abundance of sweet sounds at its April 29 Digital Stage concert. But none were sweeter than the words of Yannick Nézet-Séguin in introducing the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 35 by 19th-century French composer Louise Farrenc.
“This Second Symphony is gorgeous,” the conductor effused, after a brief summary of Farrenc’s important role in the development of Western art music. “But what I…what we…want to do is present other symphonies by her and develop the knowledge of her legacy at the Philadelphia Orchestra.”
This statement underscores the importance of spotlighting composers who have had to overcome obstacles of bias and reduced opportunities, or who have simply been forgotten. And it commits the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the great symphonic ensembles in the world, to championing and performing works by neglected or stymied composers, beyond the occasional token outing.
Bold and lyrical
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) had her share of obstacles to overcome as a composer, but she was quickly recognized for her genius as a pianist, composer, and educator. In fact, before she was 40, she was appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatory, a prestigious position she held for 30 years. Her abundant works for orchestra and chamber ensembles were recognized for their merit and celebrated during her lifetime and for a few decades thereafter.
In his remarks, Nézet-Séguin pointed out that Farrenc’s work falls between the age of the late classical composers such as Beethoven (Farrenc studied composition with that composer’s close friend and colleague, the composer Anton Reicha) and the early Romantics, “pre-Brahms,” perhaps in the company of Weber and Bruch. The conductor said he often mentions Mendelssohn when rehearsing Farrenc works. “We need the same kind of poetry, lyricism, lightness in the rhythm,” he said. And indeed, one can hear echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Second Symphony’s scampering third-movement scherzo.
The orchestra embraced this work with eager enthusiasm, making up for fewer musicians with deliciously elegant solo passages and intense fortissimos. This was not the first time the orchestra performed this complex and nuanced symphony, including it on a program with Daniil Trifonov playing the Emperor Concerto last year, pre-Covid. I also had the pleasure of reviewing for Bachtrack Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in a streaming performance from the Royal Northern Sinfonia last December. I called it “bold, assertive, even defiant with pockets of irresistible tenderness,” and that description applies equally to the Second from the Philadelphia Orchestra.
A tectonic stream
The concert opened with Michael Foumai's six-minute Concerto Grosso, an explosion of nonstop energy and excitement as the instruments tossed thematic material back and forth between them at a breakneck pitch. For all its celerity, the work never loses its sense of humor and high spirits.
The centerpiece of the program was Poulenc’s sweeping Organ Concerto, featuring Paul Jacobs on the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. It is always a pleasure to hear and observe the Grammy-winning organist perform, especially on this particular instrument. Jacobs is truly one of the stellar musicians of our time, and we are fortunate to have him close by (he is chair of the organ department at Juilliard).
The concerto begins with a heart-stopping theme by the solo organ, followed by a daisy chain of memorable melodies, some light, even whimsical, through a single movement that feels a bit like three. That agitated first theme returns at the end and would actually make a nifty substitute for the Bach Toccata in an especially haunting horror film.
In person, in the Kimmel Center, the organ’s puissance reminds me of my time as a movie critic, covering the 1974 film Earthquake. “Sensurround” sound technology created heavy vibrations so the audience could both see and feel the action. Nothing quite so tectonic occurred in this streaming concert, but it was still possible to turn up the volume and luxuriate in waves and waves of blissful sound.
Image description: A photo of assorted Philadelphia Orchestra musicians performing onstage at Verizon Hall. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, wearing a red shirt, spreads his arms wide from the podium.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Farrenc’s Symphony No. 2. Louise Farrenc, Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 35; Michael Foumai, Concerto Grosso; and Francis Poulenc, Organ Concerto. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Paul Jacobs, organ. Livestreamed from Verizon Hall on April 29, 2021. Ticket holders can access a stream through May 6, 2021. 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.