Poor Ravel. He was expelled from the Conservatoire; he was consistently rejected for the Prix de Rome; he never married. Along with his contemporaries Stravinsky, Debussy and Satie, he made enormous strides in 20th-century music, but is unfortunately remembered best (when at all) for the plodding fifteen minutes of his 1928 composition Boléro. In 1928, the French composer traveled to New York and was exposed to contemporary big band music; he said of this subsequent work that “each movement of my new concerto has some jazz in it”. The piece received its New York première in 1932 by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, so it was a thrill to watch the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined by their phenomenal new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin as well as pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, perform this concerto on the same stage 80 years later.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

The concerto is, in a word, fun, so it was a perfect match for Mr Thibaudet’s light touch and Mr Nézet-Séguin’s adventurous levels of energy. Mr Thibaudet, whose over 50 recordings include works by Ravel and Satie and the soundtracks for Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, has performed numerous times over the past 20 years as a guest soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The group of performers threw themselves into the music, from the opening whip-crack and folksy piccolo melody until the frantic, jazzy velocity of the third movement. The contrasting lyricism of the second movement was so serene that sniffles were being stifled throughout the hall. Mr Thibaudet’s strains of notes, as they swayed and swirled along with those of the orchestra, were beautiful to the point of, in my case, slack-jawed immobility.

Such an impressive performance was not surprising from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who recently blew Carnegie audiences away with their rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5. Mr Nézet-Séguin, at the ripe age of 37, has become a force to be reckoned with on the classical scene. His vibrant presence at the podium suffused a program bursting with unusual and challenging sounds with an unmatched excitement. The evening began with the New York première of Gabriela Lena Frank’s stunning Concertino Cusqueño, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra itself in 2012. As with the other two composers on the program, Ms Frank’s folksy rhythms and colors mingled with classical influences, most prominently in her case the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto.

The première of Ms Frank’s work was considerably tamer than that of Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”), a ballet depicting the cheerful story of a sacrificial virgin who dances herself to death. As legend has it, the ballet’s première incited a near-riot 100 years ago in Paris, 1913. It has been established that the mayhem was a reaction not to Stravinsky’s music but to Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In fact, Stravinsky’s music likely wasn’t even heard over the noisy outrage – a fact that irked Stravinsky but delighted Diaghilev. Ironically, the rhythmically and tonally revolutionary ideas encompassed by the piece now mark it as a milestone of 20th-century music. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance was raw and riveting: stripped of any sense of eloquence or pretension, the audience was bestowed with percussive melodies and jaggedly intersecting meters and a driving narrative. However, even a near-flawless interpretation of the 100-year-old concert hall staple could not compare to the compelling piano concerto that preceded it.

In response to the endless, thunderous applause, Mr Nézet-Séguin returned to the podium and announced that the orchestra would play a little “digestif” to cleanse our palates; the musicians immediately dived into Stravinsky’s 1907 Pastorale (originally for soprano and piano, later orchestrated by Stokowski), a lovely little piece written under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov and dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter. Our “digestif” was soothing after the musical meltdown we had just witnessed; still, I couldn’t help feeling thirsty for more from this orchestra and particularly its conductor.