Last Thursday evening, just before the lights dimmed at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, the audience purred in anticipation of the evening’s forthcoming concert. Tonight was to be a momentous occasion – the official inaugural concert with Yannick Nézet-Séguin being installed as Music Director.
I expected a concert full of classical music royalty highlighting the event as one of the most important in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s history. What was delivered was an all-around humble performance delivered by, as Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia introduced them, the “greatest orchestra in the world” – the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The concert began with speeches from the orchestra’s executive director Allison Vulgamore, and the chairman of the board of directors Richard B. Worley. Both individuals spoke with an equally open spirit about both the struggles of the orchestra, and the bright future that lies ahead for the organization. Joseph Kim, concertmaster of the orchestra, also spoke before the concert. He seconded Ms. Vulgamore’s and Mr. Worley’s optimistic words on the future of the orchestra, saying that the orchestra’s administration did only what was “absolutely necessary” in order to fix the problems at hand. Mr. Kim’s statement comes in the wake of a number of the orchestra’s significant players deciding to leave the orchestra for other positions. Mr. Kim’s statement gives an outsider the perspective that, through the financial difficulties of the orchestra, both musicians and administrators are aware that both parties are working toward a common goal – to save and better the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Maestro Séguin’s gala opening night was a unique concert. Last season the orchestra received some flak for programming what some saw as a rather undaring season. This season, however, is proving to be different. Séguin’s opening night concert featured soloist Renée Fleming, singing Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Richard Strauss’ “Mein Elmer!” from Arabella. Between these two pieces was a performance of what has become one of Maestro Séguin’s staple pieces with the orchestra – Brahms’ Symphony no. 4.
Ms. Flemming, Maestro Séguin, and the orchestra melted into Ravel’s music with a colorful French flair. Such nationalistic identification is not always suitable, but Ravel’s Shéhérazade contains such easily identifiable French lines and harmonies, topped with a spattering of beautiful French text by Tristan Klingsor. The only legitimate option for the musicians is to embrace such an affect, and allow it to be one of the driving forces of the piece, which each musician did impeccably.
To play staunchly German music after such a French escapade is, most surely, a challenging feat. Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 echoed around us. At times, throughout the piece, a French spirit still lingered in the sound of the orchestra, but Maestro Seguin lead a focused and brilliant performance of the piece. Most notably, the string section of the orchestra sang fully and brightly, harkening back to heyday of the orchestra under Stokowski and Ormandy. The orchestra seemed to hit its stride when they launched into the boisterous third movement, adopting a rooted and Germanic sound that was still manicured by Maestro Séguin’s intimate leadership. The orchestra still struggled to dance as their new leader desired- to put down their instruments and embrace Brahms’ musical survey of the past and present. Come the fourth movement, the orchestra began to free themselves and dance with the music as Maestro Séguin’s sweeping gestures implored of them.
Ms. Flemming hit her stride of the evening in the concert’s closing number, “Mein Elmer!” from Richard Strauss’ Arabella. It is difficult for an artist of Flemming’s notoriety to live up to his or her reputation every time the individual steps on stage. Mr. Flemming certainly lived up to her name when she and the orchestra became a singular musical animal during the deliverance of the Strauss aria. Singing with her hallmark grace and beauty, she and Maestro Séguin collaborated brilliantly. With her indulgent swoops and sways, Ms. Flemming nodded her head in appreciation at the musical dialogue occurring on stage. This performance solidified not only the orchestra’s ability to create great music, but the intrigue and praise the orchestra can be expected to receive from the world’s great musicians. The future is surely bright for the Philadelphia Orchestra.