Innovation and collaboration have defined The Philadelphia Orchestra during Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s tenure as music director. It comes as no surprise that these values extend to the now-commonplace production of digital concerts. The orchestra’s latest program, entitled Sight/Sound/Symphony, marries visual artistry to straightforward music-making. The concert selections themselves walk the line from beloved repertory staples to exciting new work. If one event could encapsulate what I think of as the current Philadelphia Orchestra mandate, this is it.

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

That doesn’t mean that every aspect is a perfect success. Nézet-Séguin partnered the Istanbul-born, Los Angeles–based new media artist Refik Anadol to create a collage-like digital work that would accompany the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major. Anadol works with artificial intelligence; in a pre-recorded interview that accompanied the concert, he said the inspiration for the installation was to show whether a machine can dream. Some of the random pops of color were certainly dreamlike, while others resembled a cross between Rorschach test and computer screensaver. But the images mostly complemented the accompanying music, and when the program generated classical architecture, it became the visual manifestation of Beethoven’s cathedral of sound.

© Refik Anadol
© Refik Anadol

The Coronavirus shutdown interrupted the orchestra last season just as they were about to undertake a complete survey of the Beethoven symphonies. Playing only one movement here seemed like a tease. So too did Carlos Simon’s Fate Now Conquers, a 5-minute tone poem inspired by the Allegretto. Simon, 34, is a young composer of major talent; my sole complaint is that I wanted more, as there was obvious room for development, given how creatively he moved Beethoven’s theme toward something undeniably contemporary and exciting. Nézet-Séguin led a performance of vigorous energy that spoke to this stately orchestra’s affinity for new music.

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

The concert’s conclusion, Schubert’s Symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, found the Orchestra in its grand Romantic sweet spot, but the interpretation showed that even the most familiar music can be made fresh and engaging. The violins tamped down their customary brightness to match the intensity of the low strings, and Nézet-Séguin’s healthy use of vibrato suggests the doom and despair of impending death baked into this mournful work. Oboist Peter Smith played his solo line with delicate expressivity; fine work was also heard from clarinetists Ricardo Morales and Socrates Villegas, and flutists Jeffrey Khaner and Olivia Staton. An encore of the overture from The Thieving Magpie, first heard on last week’s opening-night concert, played over the credits.

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