Opening night at the Philadelphia Orchestra functions as a celebration as much as a concert, and the audience was certainly in a celebratory mood on 5th October. The crowd leapt to its feet when the musicians took the stage en masse, a moving gesture of unity and togetherness after a 19-month pandemic interruption. A second standing ovation followed almost immediately to welcome conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, soloist Yo-Yo Ma and orator Charlotte Blake Alston, a beloved local performer who was recently appointed the Orchestra’s resident storyteller, narrator and host. Although Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians offered a pre-season concert of Beethoven symphonies the previous weekend, this truly felt like the long-awaited homecoming of an institution that stirs intense feelings of hometown pride.

Yo-Yo Ma, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

It was also an opportunity to acknowledge the work the orchestra has done during the pandemic to broaden its outreach and expand its repertoire. Prior to the start of the printed program, Alston recited Langston Hughes’ poem I Dream a World, while encouraging the audience to stand and commit to joining the organization as it steps into a more equitable era of classical music. In remarks given later in the concert, Nézet-Séguin subtly acknowledged past criticism about a lack of diversity in programming and a dearth of female conductors on the podium. He promised that the next nine months would reflect “a season informed and transformed” by the impact of the pandemic, the racial justice movement in America and renewed calls for diversity, equity and inclusion.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of this sentiment, but it was not reflected by the opening night selections, which leaned toward the tried and true. The sole contemporary offering was Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which the orchestra commissioned as a tribute to health care workers on the pandemic’s frontline and initially premiered in a remotely recorded streaming performance. The short piece begins with lonely wail of a single trumpet, perhaps representing isolation, which gives way to a full fanfare. Lush strings and sweeping woodwinds recall the Americana of Bernstein and Copland. A cowbell represents the pots and pans that so many ordinary citizens clanged in appreciation at the evening hospital shift change early in the pandemic. The full orchestra joins in with shouts, hoots and stomping feet. It’s an ebullient and heartfelt piece – although there is a slight irony in revisiting a work that reflects a brief moment of national solidarity at a time when hospital staff report growing rates of burnout and frustration with patients who refuse the Covid-19 vaccines.

Elsewhere, Ma proved a yeoman soloist, performing not only Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor but also an arrangement of the Cantilena from Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras no. 5 that replaced the usual soprano with a solo cello. The latter was an idea better in theory than practice. I missed the contrast between an ethereal higher voice and the mellow, pulsing thrum of the low strings; at times, Ma’s solo line was absorbed into the cello ensemble. The orchestra’s perfectly blended cello section played with rich color, however, and I’d love to hear them take up this piece again as originally intended.

The four movements of Saint-Saëns’ concerto unspool in one unbroken gallop, and they require a soloist who can assert himself with plush lyricism and boundless energy. No one can question Ma’s virtuosity, but this assignment seemed an uneasy fit. His intonation was attenuated and wiry, with occasional unevenness across registers, and although he is an intensely physical performer, he produced only a bantamweight sound that the full orchestra often swamped. He expressed the elegance of the Allegretto con moto with thoughtful restraint, but I wished for a more heroic sound to match Nézet-Séguin forceful reading of the score, which emphasized every bell and whistle.

The concert closed with Ravel’s Boléro, which Nézet-Séguin chose because it offers “a chance for every section of the orchestra to say hello”. And they surely did, with bombast and bright colors, building to masterfully sustained tuttis. It was a performance that banished any worry the Philadelphia Orchestra had lost its ability to produce a seamlessly mixed, chromatically rich sound after such a long silence. Its conclusion provoked another immediate standing ovation. Everyone was glad to be home.