Composer Vivian Fung described Prayer as her “most overtly emotional work” in a brief, taped introduction prior to The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first performance of the piece. When I first heard the short tone poem earlier this month, performed by the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, I found it moving but somewhat incomplete. Yet here, several weeks later, the groundswell of feeling Fung described was entirely evident, from the guttural low voices that open the work to the high string lines that seem to communicate glimmers of hope in the midst of darkness. The influence of Hildegard von Bingen was felt in a mystical quartet executed by Ricardo Morales (clarinet), David Bilger (trumpet), Patrick Williams (flute) and Peter Smith (oboe). Both outings were conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a longtime champion of fellow Canadian Fung, yet the Philadelphia performance sounded less decorative and more substantive.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The orchestra’s first performance of Aaron Copland’s 1944 orchestration of his Appalachian Spring Suite emerged with total dramatic clarity. Under normal circumstances, one could imagine Nézet-Séguin partnering with a local ballet organization to create a hybrid production for this score, given his interest in mixed media. Instead, the 13 musicians stood close to the podium – with flute, clarinet and bassoon behind plexiglass dividers – projecting a more casual atmosphere that suited the simple country rhythms of Copland’s classic Americana. Nézet-Séguin created intimacy and tension, with the instruments essentially becoming the characters of the narrative. The chamber-like detail was another unexpected by happy byproduct of current size restrictions.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The program closed with Siegfried Idyll, captured as the sun began to set in the distance visible from the stage of Mann Music Center, the orchestra’s outdoor home. Visually, it was perfect. Musically, the interpretation left something to be desired; individual voices within the orchestra were graceful but rarely seemed unified, and some entrances were overly tentative. There was little sense of build to the piece’s explosive climax. Although Nézet-Séguin has grown into a prolific and perceptive conductor of Wagner's operas, the performance suggested scant development since he last led it locally, in 2013.


This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream

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