The Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening weekend highlighted their renewed commitment to diversifying the repertoire and broadening the American classical canon. Of the four pieces that comprised the hour-long concert’s printed program, only one, Gershwin’s familiar Rhapsody in Blue, had previously appeared on a subscription program, and three were written by black composers. Pride of place was given to Florence Price, the unjustly neglected mid-century composer whose work is in the midst of a major rediscovery, as institutions reckon with centuries of racism and sexism that kept artists like her outside the concert hall far too long. All in all, it was a smart and engaging performance that felt expertly calibrated to the current moment in history.

Laurin Talese and Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jessica Griffin

Local jazz vocalist Laurin Talese opened the afternoon with Lift Every Voice and Sing, J Rosamand Johnson’s setting of a poem by his brother, James Weldon Johnson. This brief, uplifting hymn has often been called “the Black National Anthem” and has been recorded by everyone from Marian Anderson to Beyoncé. Talese flaunted an alluringly dusky timbre and played with the legato line, employing liberal backphrasing that occasionally clashed with Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s straightforward reading of a lush string arrangement by Jim Gray. Soloist and maestro were better syncopated in Talese’s own effervescent This Love, which already sounds like a standard.

Nézet-Séguin also clashed somewhat with Aaron Diehl, the elegant Gershwin soloist whose reading of the composer’s virtuosic cadenzas favored a soft-grained, jazz-inflected style. The orchestra, by contrast, thundered forth with a bombastic interpretation that rendered Diehl inaudible when piano and musicians played as one. (The performance used Ferde Grofé full orchestrations, rather than the jazz-band version they’ve favored in the past.) There is perhaps something slightly poetic in this conflict – the slick new style of the early 20th century fighting to be heard against the grandeur of the past – and Diehl infused his unaccompanied passages with a luscious sheen. But the overall effect was imbalanced.

Aaron Diehl, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jessica Griffin

Diehl shone brighter in two other pieces – one that was expected and one announced from the stage. He nailed the Impressionistic note-painting of William Grant Still’s Out of the Silence, with Nézet-Séguin handling gracefully the abstract, floating orchestral line. Flutist Jeffrey Khaner was nearly a co-soloist, his trills shimmery and evocative. As an encore, percussionist Christopher Deviney joined Diehl on the vibraphone for an arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s bebop classic Blue Monk. In this case, Diehl’s litheness beautifully complemented Deviney’s animation. It was a marriage of equals.

The news, however, was Price’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, a work composed in 1945 but not performed in her lifetime. As with Price’s First Symphony, which the Philadelphians took up in a November 2020 streamed concert, the Fourth blends the neo-Romantic style of her contemporaries with dashes of the African American musical tradition. Both works feature a Juba, which emerges with buoyancy in the third movement here; and the symphony opens with a forceful quote from the spiritual Wade in the Water. Nézet-Séguin handled the often quicksilver shifts in tone and style, from forceful brass chorales to lilting string melodies, and underlined in each movement how Price adapted, blended and superseded cultural expectations. It is a symphony that deserves to be heard as often as any contemporaneous piece, and it confirmed that Price’s artistry truly lives up to the concert’s title: American Masters.