An emotional premiere and an exciting debut

Philadelphia Orchestra presents John Luther Adams and Igor Stravinsky

3 minute read
Nally, on the podium at left foreground, conducts the black-clad orchestra and singers on Verizon Hall’s sleek wooden stage.
Donald Nally conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing in the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth’. (Photo by Margo Reed.)

We’ll get to the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s epic Vespers of the Blessed Earth in a moment. First, hats off to young conductor Austin Chanu, making his conducting debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra during Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s absence due to illness. A conducting fellow this season studying at the Eastman School of Music, Chanu stepped in at the last minute this weekend to lead the orchestra in the sexiest music alive, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. This work is treacherously difficult and wildly syncopated, notes flipping back and forth like ping-pong balls among time signatures. But Chanu and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra met the challenge.

The orchestra never sounded better as Chanu led with primal energy and shamanistic insight into the music for the ballet that caused a riot for suggestive rhythms and undulating balletic moves at its 1913 Paris premiere. The work effectively divides the world of classical elegance from the screaming rhythms of the modern age. From the bassoon solo (Daniel Matsukawa) and succulent chowder of woodwinds that open the work to the final boom of a bass drum, the orchestra matched Chanu’s confident leadership in a performance of searing energy and heart-thumping passion. (Marin Alsop conducted this work at the orchestra’s concert on Thursday, March 30.)

Mournful beauty

The centerpiece of this weekend’s concert, however, was the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s Vespers of the Blessed Earth. I was blown away by the mournful beauty of this lament on the extinction of entire species, most of which we cannot even name, and the inevitable destruction of the planet we call home. In Nézet-Séguin’s absence, the large orchestra and seraphic choir (The Crossing) were conducted by Donald Nally, with a spoken introduction by Charlotte Blake Alston and a concluding vocalise sung by soprano Meigui Zhang, filling in for ailing soloist Ying Fang. The composer himself made an appearance onstage at the conclusion of the performance, bowing with hands in prayer pose in an expression of gratitude.

Musically, Vespers consists of five heartbreaking movements, perfectly synchronized in terms of balance, expressiveness, and variety—an amazing variety of tonal values and timbres. The work moves in Zen-like pristine pacing from section to section, often with superscript names and descriptions of geological features, insects, and aquatic creatures. Displayed names such as the leaf-scaled sea snake, fringe-limbed sea turtle, and northern hairy-nosed wombat demand our attention, then fade from sight and mind.

The movement titled “A Weeping of Doves” was especially poignant as human voices not only replicated the pining voices of rainforest fruit doves, but also seemed to express their feelings at loss of habitat and imminent decline. There was something very shakuhachi (bamboo flute) about this movement, as well as the next, “Night Shining Clouds,” whose shimmering glaze brought to mind a subdued taiji motion with a similar name. In this work, rivers of sound seem to tumble from a high place and pour like a whispering waterfall on our ears. In the final section, “Aria of the Ghost Bird,” Zhang sang the wordless song with poignant tenderness and liquid tones.

Not ready to revisit

While I give this work the highest rating for musical creativity, performance, and delivery of an urgent message to the world, I confess I would not want to listen to it again any time soon. Despite its brilliant balance, flawless execution, and hypnotic power, I found the work profoundly depressing and struggled to contain a desire to cry throughout the performance. Fortunately, Vespers was the first work on the program. While retaining its haunting message of inevitable doom, we moved on after intermission to the savage celebration of all things natural in Stravinsky’s Rite, and left Verizon Hall with the pounding of drums and the swoosh of slyly smiling cymbals in our memory’s ear.

What, When, Where

J.L. Adams, Vespers of the Blessed Earth; Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. Vespers conducted by Donald Nally; Rite conducted by Austin Chanu. The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 30 through April 2, 2023, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus's Verizon Hall, 300 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or


The Kimmel Cultural Campus 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.

Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.

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