Mastering symphonic forces

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Gabriela Lena Frank and Hector Berlioz

3 minute read
Smiling and wearing a black jacket, Nezet-Seguin conducts, with the heads of a few musicians visible in the foreground.
Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)

Two musical world journeys—one tracing a composer’s global roots, the other revealing a fantastic journey of the mind—received outstanding performances this weekend by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose interpretation of Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique was a surprising feast of wit and majesty.

But first to an exciting newer work: American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2016 Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra, in its first complete performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Scored for a large ensemble, the richly modulated score features a dozen percussion instruments, including bass drum, cymbals, timpani, police whistle, tam-tam, and slapstick. Currently the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Frank reveals her comprehensive understanding of the symphonic forces at her command ­­­­in four riveting movements. These sections unfold, each with a unique, thought-provoking character, as she journeys to and from countries associated with her multicultural heritage (Peruvian, Chinese, Lithuanian-Jewish). Frank can also add disability to her perspective: she was diagnosed with moderate-to-profound hearing loss at birth.

Bold, complex, and passionate

After an introduction by speaker Charlotte Blake Alston, the first movement, “Soliloquio Serrano” (“Mountain Soliloquy”), opened in a whisper with concertmaster David Kim’s lyrical solo. He was soon joined by the other first chairs as a string quartet which played along with, and sometimes in counterpoint to, the orchestra. As the work unfolded, timpani thunder, displaying their muscular power, and glissandi (sliding notes) were passed from musician to musician.

A contrasting wave of agitation crashed through the second movement, “Huaracas” (slingshot weapons of the 16th-century Incan empire), while a prayer (“Haillí”) rose up from the string section in movement three, later to be joined by other instruments in an animated conversation. “Tarqueada”, Frank’s recollection of a parade of flutists in Peru, completes the concerto with a potpourri of percussive flaunts. My only criticism is that I found the police whistle too loud and piercing in this section and would lobby for a slightly more subdued sound that would still carry the musical point.

Overall, I found this work revelatory, authentic, and well-balanced. It was wonderful to hear a long (30-minute) work by a living woman composer of diverse heritage. So often, music directors will toss this demographic a musical bone by performing an overture-type composition in five minutes or so. This work reminded me of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra for its bold expression, complexity, and passion for the music of Indigenous cultures.

More revolution, less revelation

The concert concluded with a remarkable performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. Marketing folks love to point out (or imagine) that Berlioz composed this is in some kind of proto-hippie drug fog, leading to hallucinations and dysphoria. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. What does matter is the genius behind the notes, the absolute command of music composition and the knowledge and self-confidence to smash the rules and create a musical experience of epic proportions. This work is more about revolution than the revelation of personal neuroses.

From its rhapsodic beginning to the mocking “Dies Irae” (day of wrath) at the end, this symphony reveals what large orchestras are for, sweeping up the audience in breathless anticipation and then rewarding that desire with music that fills the soul with wonder and delight. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Nézet-Séguin’s transformative direction, brought a performance rich with nuance, yet solidly constructed, even uplifting—an odd phenomenon since the work ends with a witches’ Sabbath and a march to the scaffold. What wonderful playing all around: I wish I could credit each musician individually for contributing to a performance that nearly knocked me off my feet.

What, When, Where

Gabriela Lena Frank, Walkabout: Concerto for Orchestra; Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, op. 14. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and featuring speaker Charlotte Blake Alston. The Philadelphia Orchestra. May 11-13, 2023, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus's Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or


Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.

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