The Philadelphia Orchestra has given Friday afternoon concerts since 1901, its second season when conductor Fritz Scheel decided that ladies needed a concert-time when they could feel comfortable attending unescorted. Nowadays, this public is pretty equally male and female –generally students and music lovers the age of their grandparents. On this particular Friday, Music Director and charmer-in-chief Yannick Nézet-Séguin appeared onstage holding a microphone, not a baton, announcing with his typical warmth that he wanted the audience to share in the special qualities of the musical and emotional relationships among the works. “Imagine you’re opening a book: the Lohengrin overture opens quietly,” he began, continuing with aspects of quietness to look for in the other three pieces, smiling with anticipation at the discoveries in store for the listeners. This mini-lecture was a spontaneous decision: I am told that he did not speak at either the Thursday or the Saturday performances.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

As often as I’ve heard the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, both recorded and live in opera houses and concert halls, I have never experienced a rendition so otherworldly, seeming to foreshadow aspects of the opera about the knight’s father, Parsifal, far off in Wagner’s future. It is usually described as ethereal, which this interpretation was, absolutely, and with its initial pianissimo violins, quietly was an understatement. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo was a bit slower than I’m used to, and he was right: perfect for the long crescendo in subtle increments, as if one endless phrase. The woodwind timbres glowed in their evocation of the Holy Grail, and even the entrance of the brass and cymbals seemed to evolve rather than intrude. As everything returned to the whispered sensations mirroring the opening, the conclusion felt like the delicate end of a very long breath.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than Mason Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, in its first performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It boasts a full complement of strings, multiple woodwinds and brass, harp, piano, celesta and 23 forms of percussion besides the standard ones. Yet, even in these eleven musical interpretations of Jorge Luis Borges’ book of mythological creatures – mostly boisterous, often noisy, sometimes witty or moving – there were moments of gentle lyricism. The composer calls the ninth section, Sirens, “the lyrical core” and I was struck by an all-too-short moment of warm unison cello. I heard clear influences of Stravinsky, Ravel (the composer admits it) and what reminded me of the soundtracks for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, yet Bates has his own intricate, variegated ways of using these, and his very personal sound-worlds. Nézet-Séguin led the goings-on with obvious pleasure and enthusiasm, and the orchestra played brilliantly; the results were sonically spectacular. 

Joyce DiDonato © Simon Pauly
Joyce DiDonato
© Simon Pauly

The main reason most (or even all) of the audience was there, filling nearly all 2400 seats of Verizon Hall, was the appearance by the great mezzo Joyce DiDonato. While her artistry and fame may rest more with bel canto operatic roles, I was thrilled to hear her in the less-familiar French terrain of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer. She has the ideal vocal range and timbre for these lush settings of two poems by Maurice Bouchor, La Fleur des eaux (Water Flower) and La Mort de l’amour (The Death of Love). With such vocalism and her sense for text, she expressed emotions from happiness to passion, despair to resignation. Her beautiful voice was dark for “Quel son lamentable…” (How sad the sound…), while the brighter elements brought out her lighter-weight vocal side. The final line, “Ce mot fatal… L’oubli” (This deadly word… oblivion) was powerful.

The short orchestral interludes in the middle of each poem and a long one between the two, added when Chausson revised the 1890 work in 1893, gave the orchestra the chance to show its renowned richness, as well as its capacity for (yes) gentle quietness, and Nézet-Séguin was the ideal guide through Chausson’s famously Wagnerian musical landscape. It has also to be noted that the first Philadelphia Orchestra performances of the Chausson, under Leopold Stokowski, were in November 1918.

Just in case we hadn’t had enough music both lush and gentle, the program ended with Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, perhaps the most refined of his three tone poems about Rome, in a simply gorgeous performance: no need to say more.