The Philadelphia Orchestra doesn’t look much different from any other orchestra. A collection of musicians ranging from young to old, dressed in traditional black and white, bowing and bellowing into their instruments. Nothing too unusual there, nor in their most recent program at Carnegie Hall, which featured mostly well-known works by long-dead composers. And yet this orchestra, so normal in appearances, produced at times unbelievable sounds. The performance was genuinely exciting throughout, as if the notes were springing off the page and against our eardrums with youthful ruggedness. That’s why Monday evening’s concert ended up being so thrilling. Under the baton of their energetic music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra thrived throughout their concert of works by Eastern European composers.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Chris Lee
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Chris Lee
First on the agenda was Die Moldau, from Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (“My homeland”), a set of six symphonic poems illustrating aspects of Smetana’s homeland of Bohemia. While composing the piece, Smetana was struck with sudden deafness, which lost him his job as a conductor and caused his eventual mental collapse and death in an asylum ten years later. Despite this, he composed some of his most well-known music during this final decade, including this symphonic poem portraying the river it is named after. Die Moldau’s splashing melodies – depicting, as Smetana put it, “waves joyously rushing down” – betray none of the turmoil that interrupted their composition.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s interpretation was exciting to say the least, with tempos ranging from luxurious to agitated. Mr Nézet-Séguin and the musicians brought Smetana’s imagery to life from the opening flute solo rippling through the auditorium like a rivulet of water sparkling in the sunny Czech air. This flute was then joined by another, with more voices flowing over and under until eventually they swirled into a whirlwind of beautiful, folksy chords. When the flute melody returned, the strings playing placidly beneath it lent the effect of floating peacefully down the river. At other points, the orchestra seemed to snag us into its current with effective ebbing in dynamics. And sometimes the hushed drama of the violins seemed to glide along like ice floes, refusing to melt. This was a deftly-changing, fast-paced – even torrid at times – Moldau, brilliantly conducted and executed right up until to the dying violin note and two final chords.

Not only is Smetana not the most famous deaf composer but he is not even the most famous Czech composer, a title typically reserved for Antonin Dvořák, whose Symphony no. 6 in D major closed the program Monday evening. A versatile and prolific composer, Dvořák composed nine symphonies and ten operas, the most well-known of which, Rusalka, is being vigorously conducted by Mr Nézet-Séguin this month at the Met Opera. This rendition of the symphony was nearly as fierce as his Rusalka. It was clear from the outset that Mr Nézet-Séguin was not afraid of silence or gaps beneath the chords, and that he was willing to sacrifice elements of tradition or expectation for the sake of excitement.

During the first movement I was bracing myself the same way I would when my brother was learning to drive, wondering “Will he brake in time?” Mr Nézet-Séguin would bring the orchestra to extreme volumes and then manage to soften everything much more smoothly and safely than my brother did in our parents’ car. The second movement was a bit more syrupy, followed by abrupt shift back to the jaunty ferociousness in the opening of the scherzo. The third movement incorporates a Bohemian furiant during which the musicians kept up the energy even with copious repetition. During the final movement, the orchestra effortlessly transitioned from huge, catastrophic sounds to more delicate sections as they climbed ever higher and finally reached catharsis with the bombastic conclusion. Throughout the work, Mr Nézet-Séguin seemed eager for chaotic, passionate sounds, never holding back.

Radu Lupu © Pekka Saarinen
Radu Lupu
© Pekka Saarinen
Between these two Czech masterpieces was Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s last completed work: the Piano Concerto no. 3, with distinguished pianist Radu Lupu as soloist. Whereas Mr Nézet-Séguin threw himself into the music, Mr Lupu was calm and unassuming at the piano. His approach was thoughtful and dignified, even though many pianists might have gone for showiness. In fact, the work grew gradually from tentativeness to powerful, enrapturing chaos. From the violinists’ opening murmurs to the hushed, almost painfully quiet second movement, Bartók’s rare tranquility was emphasized. Apparently inspired by birdsong overheard in Asheville, North Carolina, Bartók focused more on chirruping conversation between instruments rather than virtuosity. The impressionistic chords in the second movement were suffused with so much quiet beauty that I was transported back to the river we had experienced during the orchestra’s first piece. The notes tumbled down calmly now, not so torrid, but still shimmering, alive.

****1