For the second year in a row, the Philadelphia Orchestra closed its season in Verizon Hall by pairing a classic work from the symphonic repertoire with a newer composition by Gabriela Lena Frank, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. In this case, both pieces took a programmatic approach to storytelling through music, with Frank’s Walkabout providing an aural exploration of her mother’s home country, Peru, and Berlioz’s epic Symphonie fantastique offering its thrilling, chilling portrait of a mind addled by opium and obsession. The two paired nicely together, with the building blocks of Frank’s sound world recognizable within the Berlioz, and they allowed the Philadelphians to perform at their most capacious and spirited under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Frank’s work exists at a crossroad of identity, and her intersectionality manifests not only in the style of her music but also in her manner of composition. Subtitled as a concerto for orchestra, Walkabout brings together all corners of the symphony to create something that sounds at once familiar and foreign, comforting and jarring. The first movement opens with spirited Klezmer figures in the first and second violins, representing Frank’s Jewish heritage, punctuated occasionally by the thunderclap of cymbals. She is finding a way to bring together the disparate but vital truth of her experience. 

In the second movement, the music travels noticeably to South America, with the orchestra evoking indigenous instruments. There is a quiet elegance to the third movement, Haillí, which we are told means “prayer”, and a rising intensity to the concluding Tarqueada, where woodwinds swarm the stage like bees. Blown whistles snap the audience to attention near the end. Nézet-Séguin brought narrative focus to this all-encompassing concerto while still allowing the players to let loose in the right moments.

After intermission, the Symphonie fantastique began with an unusual gracefulness, the opening measures of Rêveries–Passions almost whispered. As the movement progressed, Nézet-Séguin set the tone that would recur throughout the work’s five narrative episodes: he would evoke beauty tinged with terror through extreme dynamic shifts, jarring yet precisely controlled. Lush, lovely details emerged from the harps in Un Bal and the mellow English horn in Scène aux champs. In Nézet-Séguin’s hands, this was almost Berlioz the Romantic. But any sense of tranquility vanished in a hard-charging Marche au supplice, the audience’s collective pulse quickening with the timpani strikes, the nightmarish visions interrupted only by the baleful idée fixe heard on the clarinet. The Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath was a long, kaleidoscopic descent to Hell. Nézet-Séguin managed to allow all the spine-tingling, familiar elements exist within a finely delineated idea of the work as a whole. The orchestra realized his vision at their considerable best.

Although the Philadelphia Orchestra presented a full season in 2021-2022, the lingering shadow of Covid and the need to find a new groove after a long break from live performances resulted in many concerts that missed the mark. But after the thoughtful season capped here, there is no doubt the Philadelphians are back on top form with thoughtful programming and exemplary musicianship. And for those keeping track at home: not a single cell phone was heard at the final concert of the season, on 13th May!