Yannick Nézet-Séguin selected a highly colorful program for the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s first visit to Hill Auditorium since 1977. Generous helpings of Ravel complemented a highly individual performance of Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. Originally, the program had meant to include Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, but the Mother Goose Suite of Ravel was chosen instead. The Rotterdam Philharmonic is a polished ensemble whose best qualities make it very much worth hearing.

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

The opening Mother Goose Suite featured carefully controlled dynamics allied to deeply satisfying orchestral balances. “The Pavane of Sleeping Beauty” unfolded with delicacy and care, while “Tom Thumb” was languid and featured some outstanding contributions from the woodwinds. Each subsequent section led up to a glorious “Fairy Garden” finale, filled to the brim with splashes of color. Nézet-Séguin clearly loves this music, and his obvious attention to detail made the music more childlike and evocative than usual. Special mention should also be made of the fine solo work, which brought each of these fairy tales vividly to life within each dance.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major has played a role in pianist Hélène Grimaud’s career since her early teens. She’s a fantastic artist, one who brings both virtuosity and intellect to every performance. The jazzy rhythms of the piece held absolutely no problems for Grimaud, who brought a combination of accuracy and fire to proceedings. Equally comfortable was her partner on the podium, but the Rotterdam forces seemed taxed by the complicated rhythms and dizzying speeds. At times, it seemed that the conductor and soloist were not on the same page, despite the obvious affinity of both artists in this music. The Adagio assai slow movement was lovely, though. Here, Grimaud showed that speed wasn’t her only goal, as she brought a touching poetry to the music. The Philharmonic offered equally soulful contributions, again very well-controlled and attuned to sectional balance. Only in the final Presto did things almost fall apart. Grimaud tore through the music, and the woodwinds and brass struggled to keep up. Nézet-Séguin conducted forcefully, giving cues effectively, but even he seemed to lose focus for a few moments while trying to match the powerful personality of his soloist. Though the Rotterdam brass played well, they were not quite up to par with the woodwinds and strings, which were very beautiful.

The Tchaikovsky Symphony was largely satisfying. From the opening moments, it was impossible not to admire the care that Nézet-Séguin took in establishing the lower half of his orchestra. This created a true richness in the low strings, and a wonderfully idiomatic Tchaikovsky sound from the entire orchestra. Phrasing of the upper strings was occasionally clipped, but it was a unique touch and did not distract from the music. Along with this solid foundation from the bottom half of his ensemble, Nézet-Séguin also had his upper strings singing. Percussion was present but never overbearing, and in general, there was a feeling of cohesion.

However, there were issues. In the famous Andante, I wasn't impressed by the French horn soloist, who lacked flow and seemed uncomfortable; there was also an embarrassing squawk from a nearby instrument that resonated throughout the entirety of Hill Auditorium. The brass were generally well-placed within the orchestral fabric, but they did not always play with alluring tones. Still, the finale was rewarding, not only for the quality of the playing, but also because of the conductor’s ability to make the music feel less fragmented than usual, less abrupt. A swift and danceable Polonaise from Eugene Onegin served as a delightful encore. All in all, a terrific concert that showcased the unquestionable strengths of the orchestra and its young conductor.