Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Hélène Grimaud exude an air of genuine affection when they perform together, and Philadelphia audiences have benefited from this special friendship. Although Grimaud made her local debut nearly twenty years ago, her appearances have become more frequent since Nézet-Séguin took over the music directorship in 2012, and she burnishes an already stellar reputation with each successive visit. She served as soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 as part of the season-opening subscription concert, which also featured an intriguing world premiere and an old favorite stirringly performed.

Valerie Coleman with Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jessica Griffin

Grimaud’s assertive sound proved ideal for Bartók’s muscular, discursive piano writing, which the composer set against a surprisingly melodic orchestral foundation. She called attention to subtle influences across the concerto’s three movements, which were played breathlessly as one sustained narrative. The opening Allegretto brimmed with folk textures one might expect to hear, while the gentle Adagio religioso contained echoes of Debussy in its exquisite coloring. The concluding Allegro vivace vibrated with rhythms of jazz and ragtime. Grimaud’s assured approach made every moment of the 30-minute work sound fresh and invigorated, and Nézet-Séguin ideally balanced his forces, with particularly valuable contributions from the flutes and woodwinds.

In many ways, the program followed a traditional “overture, concerto, symphony” programmatic structure. However, the bill’s curtain-raiser held special significance. Valerie Coleman’s commissioned Umoja, Anthem for Unity is not only a new work, but it represents the first time this body has ever performed a work written by a living African-American woman. Coleman, longtime flutist for the chamber ensemble Imani Winds, delivered a lovely, easy-to-digest collection of styles and ideas.

Coleman grew up in Kentucky, and the influence of Appalachian folk music could be heard in solos for concertmaster David Kim and principal viola Choong-Jin Chang. The composer’s mastery of her own instrument showed in the stirring writing she supplied for flutist Patrick Williams and piccolo player Erica Peel, both of whom imbued their sections with a greater sense of gravitas than one might expect. The percussive writing, heavy on xylophone and vibraphone, occasionally slipped into New Age cliché, but Nézet-Séguin managed to tie the performance together in a way that suggested how the trademark Philadelphia sound can be expanded to include new viewpoints. As the title implies, “umoja” is the Swahili word for unity, and the musicians certainly played as seamlessly as one could hope.

Unity also defined the program as a whole. Coleman, Bartók and Antonín Dvořák, whose Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”) closed the evening, all devoted great energy to preserving the musical traditions of their respective countries. Few pieces are as familiar to followers of the Philadelphia Orchestra as the “New World”, and if this performance didn’t particularly mine the work for much new insight, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful interpretation. In keeping with the primacy of the flute on this program, principal Jeffrey Khaner supplied particularly ravishing tone in the first movement’s abundant writing for that instrument.

As the concluding Allegro con fuoco built in tension, Nézet-Séguin – who usually conducts freehand – sent his baton hurtling toward the first row of violins in a burst of enthusiasm. (A helpful audience member in the front row reached up and retrieved it for the maestro.) Who could blame him for his ebullience when the music sounded so good? The season is already off to a strong start.