Aaron Copland was one of the most important American composers of the last century. The inclusion of his Clarinet Concerto and Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 made this program one inspired by the US. The theme of this year’s Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival, Sea & You, of course suits this beautifully – after all, we hear the skyscrapers coming up from the sea in Dvořák’s symphony. Above all, both pieces signify a new world, or “Your New World”, as the concert’s program would have it.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic
© Marco Borggreve

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto received an impressive performance from the Berliner Philharmoniker clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer, who proved himself to be an outstanding soloist as well as orchestral musician. The first movement, with its more drawn-out notes and harmonic nature, was beautiful, and the clarinet was truly intertwined with the orchestra – always audible, but never too loud. The cadenza was where things got even more interesting; its jazzy nature obviously suited Ottensamer, whose body language betrayed pure enjoyment and love for the piece. There is no break between the two movements of the concerto, but they are very different in nature. In the second movement some of the themes introduced by Ottensamer in the cadenza returned, which meant that the orchestration became a bit more rhythmic and jazzier. The Rotterdam Philharmonic and Nézet-Séguin seemed to treasure this change, and the basses – who were positioned at the back of the orchestra – led the way with their slapping. The strings had incredible depth throughout the concerto, ranging from silky-smooth to powerful, and always allowing room for the clarinet. After the concerto we were awarded with a beautiful rendition of Gerswhin’s Summertime, that put a smile on the face of everyone I saw.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 is perhaps one of the most well-known symphonies of all. As such, performances of it are both brave and safe – brave because a performance has to be extraordinary to really impress, and safe because everyone loves the symphony. Written in 1893, a year after Dvořák’s arrival in New York, it is that city and the American culture that inspired Dvořák to write the symphony. It is full of references to Native American music and African-American spirituals, yet still manages to sound like typical Dvořák. The brass, and especially the horns, have some of the most memorable motifs in music, while there is subtlety and grace in the strings and woodwinds.

Performances of Dvořák’s Ninth tend to emphasize its bombastic nature, making it a stately and grand symphony. In many ways those performances do the piece justice, and because of the absolute beauty of the melodies any performance is bound to be enjoyable. However, what the Rotterdam Philharmonic did, led by their principal conductor Nézet-Séguin, was – rather than emphasizing this stateliness – give such an energetic performance that the music became more alive, while still retaining its grand stature. Nézet-Séguin was on good form, egging the orchestra on with his limitless energy. They delivered the fastest performance of this symphony I have heard, which actually worked brilliantly.

Aside from the commendable performance of the entire brass section, it was the principal oboe and flute, particularly in the second movement, that stood out to me. They blended together perfectly, while adding even more life to the performance. For me it was exactly the vivacity that every single musician and Nézet-Séguin brought to this performance that made it extraordinary. The energy was immense, every single note the orchestra played was played with conviction and drive, and Nézet-Séguin conducted like his life depended on it. Dvořák’s Ninth deserves this kind of performance; the strength of its melodies and orchestration was not diminished, and the sheer spirit and zeal that went into the performance lifted it to a higher level.

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