Nathalie Stuztmann ended her first season as Principal Guest Conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra in much the same way as she began it: by bringing a unique, personal perspective to a work from the core repertory. As with her sensitive and intricately detailed interpretation of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major from December 2021, she helmed a memorable and individual reading of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor, a piece that nearly every major conductor associated with this orchestra has led and recorded at some point in their tenure. She infused the familiar, much-debated symphony with immediacy by cleaving closely to the letter of the score rather than seeking any radical reinvention – which, to me, is among the true marks of a great conductor.

Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

Tchaikovsky championed programmatic music, and the themes supposedly embedded in the Pathétique have been dissected and disputed for more than a century. The composer’s own death just nine days after the world premiere also adds an extra-textual layer of scrutiny to the music. Some composers frame the score as one long march toward the inevitable grave, with the splendor and brio of the earlier movements falling ultimately to the near silence of the final bars. Others emphasize dark humor and macabre aspects in Tchaikovsky’s use of unusual meter and countermelody, which may align with a belief that the composer died by suicide. Stutzmann touched on some of these elements while always meeting the music on its own terms, a choice that rendered the narrative both obvious and unknowable.

The pacing valued forward momentum from beginning to end, although the performance unfolded at roughly the expected speed. (Michael Tilson Thomas, the last conductor to lead the Pathétique in Philadelphia, shaved nearly ten minutes from the symphony's running time with aggressively fast tempos.) Still, Stutzmann treated every movement as an isolated chronicle, as if each represented a season in the subject’s life. The contrasts between the tentative opening and the bombastic development suggested the searching exuberance of youth. The Waltz was entirely devoid of the foreboding energy that some conductors elicit due to the use of quintuple meter; it sounded like happiness, pure and simple. The Allegro molto vivace was greeted with an eruption of applause that mirrored the movement’s own buoyancy – it was a burst of vigor before the quiet resolution of the Adagio lamentoso. In contrast to the previous outburst, the symphony ended with an awed hush falling over Verizon Hall. 

Stutzmann paired the Pathétique with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor, with Daniel Lozakovich making his debut as soloist. It’s an inventive and strange piece of music that requires masterful shaping to corral the quicksilver changes in tempo, meter and style. The performance here sounded somewhat ragged, with Stutzmann working more to maintain balances between the orchestra and soloist than to offer much of a specific point of view. Just 21 years old, Lozakovich proved appealing and sincere but lacking in individuality. He admirably executed the violin’s frequent leaps into its highest register, but in doing so, his sound turned tinny and harsh. More disappointingly, he often disappeared into the fabric of the orchestra in a concerto that calls for singularity and strength.