For an evening at least, I felt sympathy for Emperor Joseph II, eternally condemned to ridicule for his “Too many notes, Mozart” complaint about The Marriage of Figaro. Compared with Mozart’s never-ending flux of gems, the three scores performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the energetic baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the ensemble’s music director, included few novel musical ideas relative to their lengths.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra © Steve J Sherman
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Steve J Sherman

Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face Suite, first performed earlier this year by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, should not be confused with previous arrangements based on his first operatic success: the Dances from Powder Her Face for full orchestra (2007) and a later Concert Paraphrase of four scenes for piano. In 1995, an opera by the 24-year-old Adès describing, in a series of flashbacks, the promiscuous love life and the decline into poverty and mental illness of famous socialite, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, was a succès de scandale on its own terms. It made famous a very talented young composer able to miraculously unify “high” and “low” influences, from Richard Strauss and Alban Berg, to Stravinsky and Britten, to 1930s jazz, tango and popular melodies. The cacophonous and muddy nature of the original score is preserved in this new Suite, co-commissioned by several institutions including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Carnegie Hall. The most recent reincarnation of the Powder Her Face music rescores the Dances and supplements them with four additional sections that include previous vocal material. Compared with the sparse initial orchestration, a much more experimental Adès is creating all sorts of complex textures, using traditional woodwinds and saxophones (Scene with Song) for special coloring. The orchestration may be masterful and Nézet-Séguin’s reading well-prepared and full of life, but the piece is somehow without shape and the music can sound, at times, tepid in the absence of the very lively stage action. 

Hilary Hahn, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra © Steve J Sherman
Hilary Hahn, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Steve J Sherman

Adès is usually praised for his post-modern eclecticism. That was not the case in the 1950s when Leonard Bernstein composed most of his important works, persistently making attempts to marry popular and “serious” strains in his music. Part of Bernstein centennial celebrations, the Philadelphians scheduled his Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium), arguably his most successful symphonic work, inviting their 2017-2018 artist-in-residence, Hilary Hahn, to be the soloist. Bernstein here used an interesting compositional device – without an overall theme, a new movement stems from material of its predecessor – that Nézet-Séguin tried, relying on the orchestra’s glorious strings, to emphasize as clearly as possible. Unfortunately, as is the case with many of Bernstein’s non-Broadway works, the music seemed long-winded, arid and uninvolving, despite, or possibly due to, its literary references. Hilary Hahn dispatched with ease all technical difficulties and brought forward her glowing, warm sound in the lyrical passages. Her playing lacked though a certain Dionysiac quality that could have brought more zest to the score.

If Bernstein’s Serenade starts with an extended solo violin, Jean Sibelius’ First Symphony, concluding the program, begins with an unexpected melancholic melody intoned by the clarinet. Ricardo Morales’ interpretation was as outstanding here as was his earlier solo in Adès’ “Ode” segment. Sibelius’ First is very much indebted to Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. It’s far from being a beginner’s work but neither is it one of the composer’s most accomplished results. It definitely has its longueurs besides clear premonitions of things to come. Nézet-Séguin’s version was very successful in the heart-on-the-sleeve, Tchaikovskian moments and in constructing massive blocks of sound; less so in the more intimate and mysterious fragments evoking those misty forests where mythical creatures might still lurk.