Accounts of nature opened and closed The Philadelphia Orchestra’s second week of subscription concerts, and in just two works Yannick Nézet-Séguin and company captured the elements in all their glory and terror. A programming theme this season involves pairing a Beethoven symphony with a new work that puts itself in conversation with the canonical piece, and Robin Holcomb’s Paradise might be the most successful entry I’ve yet encountered in this category. The title holds a double meaning – not only does it evoke our world in its most tranquil state, but it also refers to the California town almost wholly destroyed in the devastating 2018 Camp Fire. Holcomb structures her ten-minute tone poem in three sections that depict the approach and aftermath of this tragic event, with the raging storm at its center.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Pete Checchia

A sweet woodwind song in the opening bars disguises hidden danger. You might be hearing birdcall on an unseasonably warm November morning, just as it was on that day of destruction, or those flinty notes could represent the embers crackling off and igniting the blaze. Whatever they signify, that spare introduction morphs into an overwhelming sound that engulfs the whole orchestra, with thick brass and agitated strings mimicking the panic of a situation that quickly slips out of control. Tempos vary wildly for the rest of the piece, suggesting a battle between containment and uncontrolled consumption. Nézet-Séguin handled these volatile shifts masterfully, never obscuring the narrative thread. When the piece concluded still very much in the thick of things thematically, you sensed that Holcomb has infused her writing with feelings of fear and uncertainly up to the very end. It ends not cleanly but truthfully – just as Paradise’s recovery continues to this day, long after the event that scarred the town permanently. Ecstatic applause greeted Holcomb when she took the stage for a bow, and she looked genuinely touched when a second round broke out as she returned to her seat in the auditorium.

Unsurprisingly, Paradise served as a companion to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major “Pastoral”, which also depicts a sublime landscape disturbed by an act of God. After hearing this conductor and orchestra bring acres of fresh insight to the First and Fifth two weeks ago, it surprised me that Nézet-Séguin favored a textbook approach here. The sound was lushly blended throughout, with seamless legato – and for a maestro who usually employs generous rubato in his timing, the tempos were surprisingly conservative. This was not a performance that left the listener with new ideas to consider, but as a traditionalist interpretation of a familiar piece, I cannot imagine it being done better. A moment of overwhelming beauty came in the Allegretto when the cellos, playing their brief solo statement, sounded so perfectly attuned that it suggested one single, rich instrument.

Pretty Yende, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Pete Checchia

Sandwiched between the old and new was a set of Richard Strauss Lieder performed by Pretty Yende. The South African soprano has been branching out of late from the coloratura repertoire that dominated her early career, but the four songs selected here were not an ideal fit. Yende was often text-bound and gave the impression of genuine sight-reading, for which she seemed out of sync with Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra. She delivered long-spun high lines in Morgen! and An die Nacht, but so much of Strauss’ vocal music lives in the middle voice, which is Yende’s least secure register – the Orchestra frequently swamped her. The mischievous Amor suited her best, although her trills were often approximated. Concertmaster David Kim played the violin prelude to Morgen! with elegance and restraint.