The Academy of Music will always be home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, even though they decamped for the Kimmel Center back in 2001. After all, it’s the stage where Stokowski and Ormandy reigned supreme, where Rachmaninov acted as soloist and conductor for his own works, where The Rite of Spring and Symphony of a Thousand received their US premieres. Verizon Hall may boast a smoother sound – to me, that’s debatable – but the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street has a hold on the institutional history.

Yefim Bronfman © Frank Stewart
Yefim Bronfman
© Frank Stewart

A recognition of that history defined the orchestra’s first subscription concert at the venue in twenty years. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin programmed Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor, first heard in this hall in 1936. This work succinctly shows off the full range of what this orchestra can do, with a riot of colors underpinned by overwhelming lushness in the strings. Nézet-Séguin brought a Straussian shimmer to the first movement and an almost militaristic precision to the jubilant Allegro, and the hair’s-breadth shifts from quiet contemplation to triumphant exultation were handled with finesse. Over all, the piece sounded more cohesive than it usually does.

The concert also began an exploration of Beethoven’s piano concertos that will continue over the next few weeks. Yefim Bronfman brought an old-school sense of showmanship to the Piano Concerto no. 4, utilizing the composer’s own cadenzas and dispatching them with flashy fingerwork. If Bronfman is not the most introspective soloist, he compensates with a flawless sense of line that remains rock solid throughout the dynamic range. Likewise, if Nézet-Séguin is not the most probing Beethoven conductor, he knows how to support his partner while drawing lovely coloring from the orchestral ranks.

The concert opened with Dust Devils, a single-movement tone poem by Canadian-American composer Vivian Fung, who was in attendance. It made a lot of big noise, with thundering timpani, agitated brass and marimbas and rain sticks galore. Yet it was hard to discern a theme in the music, and while the orchestra played admirably, their interpretation offered little to hold onto.

A lot of contemporary compositions are derided as sounding like film music, but the slashing strings that dominate much of this work were so reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores that I started looking around for Tony Perkins. Other sections called Berg to mind. What those two composers can offer each other remains a mystery to me – and I think to Fung as well.

What’s not a mystery is that the Philadelphians are in their element when on their home turf. Here’s hoping they don’t make us wait another twenty years for their next visit home.

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