If you purchased tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s New Year’s weekend concert a month ago, you would have expected to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with a full choir and an impressive quartet of international soloists. But programs change quickly in these Covid times. Citing exhaustion after a busy fall season juggling duties in Philly and at The Met, the maestro withdrew several weeks ago, ceding the podium to Xian Zhang, music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Then amid the current surge driven by the omicron variant, the orchestra removed all vocal music out of an abundance of caution. An ode to joy, it seemed, was perhaps a bit premature.

Xian Zhang
© Benjamin Ealovega

Owing possibly to disappointment or trepidation, Verizon Hall was scarcely a quarter full for the final performance of the series on 2nd January. Those who did attend experienced an exhilarating and idea-driven afternoon of music that ushered in a new year with both tradition and compromise. What the revised offering may have lacked in glamour it found in solid musicianship and an invigorated feeling of community – you sensed that everyone, from the orchestra to the ushers to the audience desperately wanted to be there. And in Zhang, we were given a substitute who’s no second fiddle.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major is a calling card for Zhang, who performed it with her own orchestra as recently as October. She clearly knows what she wants from this music – a conductor’s score sat unopened on the podium as she charged ahead confidently – and the interpretation she drew would not have suggested the last-minute swap that occurred at the start of rehearsals. Eschewing virtually all rubato, Zhang delivered the symphony crisply in near-record time, with the kind of attention to detail that makes you hear fresh nuances in the most familiar of works. The delicate woodwinds in the Vivace section have rarely sounded so sweet, and Zhang’s layering of strings in the Allegretto underlined the groundbreaking exchange of melody that Beethoven achieved. The finale built with furious excitement to a sense of exultation. This essential work, which balances themes of heroism and uncertainty on a knife’s edge, proved an even more fitting selection for the current moment than what was originally planned.

Another choral work, Pachamama Meets an Ode by composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank, was replaced by the Guillaume Tell Overture as a curtain raiser. Again, Zhang turned a well-known chestnut into something vigorous and vibrant. Principal cellist Hai-Ye Ni brought a sense of Romantic longing to the opening cello line, which the full section picked up with remarkable evenness – never has this work sounded more like a tone poem. Zhang highlighted individual voices within the corps while still building inexorably to the driving tuttis we all know and love. She also never lost a sense of the Alpine flavor that distinguishes this Overture from so much else in Rossini’s canon.

Prior to the concert’s start, narrator Charlotte Blake Alston quoted the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “We are not responsible for what breaks us, but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again.” One sensed an essential function of this performance was for the Philadelphia Orchestra to assert that no matter what, some traditions would not remain broken. So the concert ended with the familiar sound of Strauss’ Thunder and Lightning Polka, followed by Auld Lang Syne. Zhang encouraged the audience to join in song, at first tentatively, then with full-throated appreciation behind their masks. The final encore, as always, was the Radetzky March, with the rhythmic clapping descending into hearty applause in recognition of an extraordinary afternoon.