It was a gala: there were tuxes and gowns (accessorized with matching designer masks). There were speeches from executives praising employees and thanking supporters. There was a bizarre but moving minute in which everyone in the auditorium applauded each other for keeping the faith: the executives, the audience, and the orchestra waiting on stage. And then, finally, after 572 dark days, there was music on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

The program opened with Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which has become a calling card for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Written to be performed virtually during the pandemic (the title refers to the practice of applauding frontline workers during their shift change), it sounds even better in person. Full disclosure: this was the first time I’ve heard an unamplified orchestra in a year and a half, so it may have been my ears adjusting, but Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew an astonishingly three-dimensional clarity out of the orchestration. From the first notes of David Bilger’s supple opening trumpet call, through the rich and reedy viola section melodies and the woodwind solos accompanied by marimba and pizzicato, to the climactic cheering, clapping and stomping from the orchestra (as surprising as it is perfectly chosen), it’s a terrific, likable piece—as if Copland had been filtering that optimistic American sensibility through an urban lens rather than the prairies.

The Philadelphia Orchestra play Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto was a much better choice for a celebratory program than the originally announce Rachmaninov concerto. Unfortunately, this performance suffered from balance issues. At least from my seat, it was often difficult to hear Yuja Wang over the orchestra, especially in the first movement, all the more frustrating because her ferociously intelligent musicality was on full display when she could be heard. The first three thematic statements from the piano were so individually shaped they could have been coming from three different instruments. The playful transition from the lush second movement to the jocular third was a delight, as was Wang’s take-no-prisoners approach to the 7/8 sections of the final movement.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Yuja Wang and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Chris Lee

Bernstein’s overture to Candide, no doubt a nod to Carnegie Hall’s location – is there a composer as closely identified with New York City? – was an exuberant romp. Sure, maybe the percussion was a bit overpowering in spots, and maybe the high, loud tutti passages were a tiny bit ragged, but we were all having too much fun to care. And the rich, complex sound of the low strings in the lyrical passages was worth the trip.

Nézet-Séguin spoke before launching into the final two pieces of the intermissionless program. “We missed you,” he began: performers have been as hungry to perform live again as we have been to hear them. “Art can be a key to changing the world,” he continued, introducing Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht, commissioned as a prologue to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The piece ostensibly reimagines Beethoven’s love of nature as a contemporary response to climate change. Beethoven is certainly present in this piece, which includes beautifully thundering climaxes, and Classical cadences and timpani figures strikingly enmeshed in different contexts. There are some haunting evocations of landscapes, with flautando violin glissandos combining with undulating woodwind lines to provide a bed for lonesome horn calls. It did not, to me, add up to a coherent statement by the end, which made it all the more startling when the orchestra launched directly into the Beethoven without waiting for applause.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts at Carnegie Hall's reopening gala
© Chris Lee

Nézet-Séguin blew past the opening fermatas as though they were not there, and proceeded to lead the orchestra into the fastest rendition of Beethoven Fifth that I have ever heard. The first and last movements, especially, went at an absolutely blistering pace, with a sense of unfettered abandon, time carved out only for selected moments – the oboe solo in the recapitulation of the first movement, for example, seemed to suspend the action even more than usual. I was bewildered by this at first, but as the piece progressed, I realized that this was also the most physical Beethoven Fifth I’ve ever heard. The first movement actually sounded danceable. In the tutti passages the orchestra fused into one large animal. The renowned organicism and logic of the piece, traditionally the conductor’s playground, was ignored in favor of sheer momentum. Strangely, given this, Nézet-Séguin kept the long build into the fourth movement subdued until the last second, at which point the orchestra slammed into the jubilant theme like it was greeting a long-lost loved one. The sense of arm-pumping propulsion continued, consummated by the final accelerando, which was a hair-raising catharsis. “To hell with Fate – we survived, let’s party!” was the entirely appropriate message of this rendition, leaving all the dressed-up people floating out of Carnegie Hall, smiling under their masks.