Listen to the wind

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Mozart and Valerie Coleman

3 minute read
Orchestra members in tune with each other, despite their distance. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)
Orchestra members in tune with each other, despite their distance. (Photo by Jeff Fusco.)

Orchestra members often moonlight as chamber musicians, but the pandemic has allowed that side gig to take center stage. Case in point: the latest streaming concert from the Philadelphia Orchestra features nonstandard repertory selections reaching back to Mozart and highlighting the living American composer Valerie Coleman. The pairing makes for a unique, entertaining evening of music.

“An African American scherzo”

Coleman, a flutist and longtime member of Imani Winds, wrote Red Clay & Mississippi Delta as a tribute to the camaraderie forged between members of an ensemble. She was also inspired by her Southern heritage and family history. In preperformance remarks, Coleman describes the piece as an “African American scherzo,” drawing on the linguistic roots of that musical term, which comes from the Italian word for joke.

The five-minute piece bursts forth with plenty of good humor. The novelty of musicians weaned on Beethoven and Mahler interspersing virtuosic solos with snapped fingers is worth the price of admission alone. At the same time, Coleman’s compositional talent is serious—as evidenced previously by Umoja, Anthem for Unity, which the orchestra premiered in 2019—and her ear for blending musical styles is thrilling. Delta blues take on a Gershwin-like shimmer, and solo lines for flute, clarinet, and bassoon resemble Ravel at his most jazz-inflected.

The quintet assembled from within the orchestra’s ranks—flutist Patrick Williams, oboist Philippe Tondre, bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa, hornist Jennifer Montone, and clarinetist Ricardo Morales—form a musical family similar to the one that Coleman described. Each instrument, and instrumentalist, is given the opportunity to display their unique personality, but the overall effect is one of unity. They are so in tune with each other that a conductor isn’t even required.

“A music I’d never heard”

After the leaderless curtain raiser, Yannick Nézet-Séguin joined the proceedings for Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat major. It’s better known as the Gran Partita, and better known still for its inclusion in Amadeus. In his dying hours, Salieri describes it as “a music I’d never heard, filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

As soapy and overwrought as that may sound, Salieri—or, I should say, Peter Schaffer—has a point. There is something otherworldly about this seven-movement, hourlong piece scored for 13 wind and brass players. Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation favored a slower, almost languid tempo throughout, a truly serene serenade.

Mozart has not been a particular focus during Nézet-Séguin’s tenure as music director, and the last evening dedicated to the composer that I heard, in October 2019, was disappointing. This performance suggests that first-rate Mozart can, and should, be on the agenda for future programming. As with so much else these days, all you really have to do is think outside the box.

Image description: A color photo taken from the top balcony at Verizon Hall shows about 30 tiny Philadelphia Orchestra members spread out far below on the tan stage performing a distanced concert. Dramatic blue lighting shines on the wooden tiers of the balconies, and the giant silver pipe organ above the musicians.

What, When, Where

Yannick and Mozart. Valerie Coleman, Red Clay & Mississippi Delta. Mozart, Serenade in B-flat major (“Gran Partita”). Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The Philadelphia Orchestra. Streaming on demand through March 25, 2021, at ($20 rental fee).

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