The Philadelphia Orchestra programmed Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the 1937 work served as a strong comment on the current geopolitical malady. The composer, equal parts apparatchik and revolutionary, felt pressure to deliver a triumphal opus to appease his Soviet masters, and while the nearly hourlong composition delivers neo-Classical majesty in heavy supply, it also seethes with resentment and discomfort. One hears in the charged relationship between obsequiousness and defiance a struggle that continues for Russian artists to this day. It also causes the listener to remember that music is a universal language, but rarely an apolitical one.

Sergio Tiempo
© Sussie Ahlburg

Conducting the work locally for the first time in nearly a decade, Yannick Nézet-Séguin ploughed through the acres of music with as much bombast as attention to detail. He drew appropriately jittering textures from the strings that momentarily banished the refinement usually associated with this orchestra. The opening Moderato theme left the listener on edge for a dark journey ahead, which revealed itself through thundering percussion – those timpani! – and muscular brass chorales that sounded like they came from an entirely different school of thought. 

The influence of Mahler was deeply felt in the second and third movements, as beauty and horror coexisted uneasily, and Nézet-Séguin’s recent devotion to Bruckner is perhaps responsible for the sense of architectural unity he brought to this reading. Even with traditional breaks between movements, it felt like a single thought hurtling forward toward that famously excessive finale. After all the thoughtful playing that preceded it, this militaristic music sounded especially uncomfortable – a statement made under duress. The contemporary parallel was rightly unavoidable.

Nézet-Séguin took over these performances from Gustavo Dudamel, who withdrew from his long-awaited Philadelphia debut last month for personal reasons. The switch necessitated slight repertoire changes. Piano soloist Sergio Tiempo remained, though he was heard in Chopin rather than Ginastera. The Venezuelan artist has a large, crowd-pleasing sound, though his reading of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor was somewhat short on introspection – a problem in a piece that can seem somewhat hollow and juvenile. The orchestra also took the piece in prose rather than poetry, which made for a rather dull interplay across three long movements. The teardrop-stained Larghetto sounded even weepier than usual, and there appeared to be rhythmic differences between conductor and soloist in the Vivace finale. Wouldn’t Prokofiev – or this orchestra’s beloved Rachmaninov – have been a more appropriate substitute?

Three movements from composer-in-resident Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout opened the evening, and while it’s easy to admire the way she can make the orchestra’s string sections mimic folk instruments, the result came across like one idea stretched beyond its natural conclusion. A more moving, and timely, musical statement came before the concert proper began, as narrator Charlotte Blake Alston spoke of “the bright light of the human spirit” that transcends even suffering and war. Before a moment of silence, Nézet-Séguin led Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody, for solo violin and string orchestra in a performance both mournful and hopeful.