There's something soul-satisfying about experiencing a concert performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra. The band is a well-oiled machine in the best sense of the term. Audiences can be assured of precision playing, and the musicians make it seem so effortless. But beyond all the spit and polish, there's also a freshness in the finished product: No routine, predictable music-making here.

Michelle Cann and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

Tonight's concert was true to form. The Rossini overture to La scala di seta, which opened the program, featured exceptional woodwind playing headlined by the memorable oboe solos of Philippe Tendre along with playful banter between the various contrasting instruments. The constantly running eighth notes were flawlessly executed as well, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin directing the proceedings with exuberant good humor.

Florence Price's Piano Concerto in D minor dates from 1934, and although the concerto was performed in Chicago "back in the day", the score was lost for decades. Reconstructed from partial instrumental parts a few years ago, Price's original manuscript was rediscovered in 2019, enabling the piece to be performed once again exactly as the composer intended. This Philadelphia concert is the first time the original scoring has been performed in the United States since the 1930s.

While short in duration (less than 20 minutes), this is a big-boned concerto that's cast in the late-romantic tradition; a bit of Rachmaninov along with generous dollops of Saint-Saëns are unmistakable in the first section of the one-movement piece. But there are also bluesy moods, particularly in the middle portion which features a spiritual-like theme.

Stylishly attired in an elegant lavender evening gown, pianist Michelle Cann played the concerto with conviction. It's obvious that she believes in the music, and she brought great passion and color – not to mention a fine pianistic technique – to her performance. The visual contrast with Nézet-Séguin, who was wearing what looked like a Hawaiian shirt from a black-and-white movie, couldn't have been more stark. But interpretively the two artists were in lockstep. He delivered deft accompaniment, ensuring fine balances between the soloist and the orchestra. In the final section of the concerto, inspired by an African juba dance, everyone got into the act, bobbing and swaying to the syncopated rhythms. The verdict? This concerto works if you don't try to make too much of it. Taken on its own terms, it's a winning piece and I can't imagine a better interpretation than what Cann and the Philadelphians delivered. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

The concert concluded with the Symphony no. 4 in C minor,"Tragic", by Schubert. Unlike some composers whose early works have their fair share of weaknesses, early Schubert symphonies are a marvel. This one was composed when Schubert was barely 19 years old, and yet we can already hear some of the flavor of his mature style.

Right out of the gate, Nézet-Séguin left no doubt that this was going to be a meaty interpretation. In some respects it seemed HIP-like with its heavy accents, but at the same time the sound was Beethovenian full-bodied. In the second movement Andante, the opening chorale-like theme featured satiny strings that blended beautifully with the woodwinds, and Nézet-Séguin navigated the tricky middle section, which can sometimes come off sounding a tad overly rhetorical, with aplomb.

The Menuetto featured heavily accented off-beats that were terrifically exciting, contrasted with delicate wind playing in the Trio section. The final movement Allegro began with pensive strings giving way to thrilling passages for the full orchestra. Fair dues to the timpanist who deserves a medal for his stentorian playing, not just in the final movement but throughout the entire symphony.


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

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