The Philadelphia Orchestra looked within its own ranks for soloists to perform Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, which returned to the subscription series after a twenty-year absence as part of an all-Mozart evening. Associate concertmaster Juliette Kang and principal viola Choong-Jin Chang are clearly revered by their colleagues and by the Verizon Hall audience, who greeted their first entrance warmly and initiated an immediate standing ovation at the conclusion of the half-hour work. I wish I could say their reading of this lovely, rarely performed piece was worth a two-decade wait, but as was the case with the entire program, everything was proficient without being particularly insightful or transcendent.

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

Kang has always displayed the makings of first-rank soloist, and here, she produced a lean, focused sound that contrasted the expansive richness of Chang’s viola. Yannick Nézet-Séguin seemed content to give Kang and Chang free rein, but I wish he had taken a firmer hand in the second movement Andante, where the solo lines tended to muddy together a touch too often. Occasional over-blending could have also been solved by placing the performers on either side of the podium, rather than next to each other. And although Chang was his usual impressive self throughout, I would have preferred a greater lightening of tone in the concluding Rondo, to better match Kang’s sprightly exuberance.

Nézet-Séguin has not made Mozart a central figure in his seven years with the orchestra, and the surprising humor and distinctive character he brings to Bruckner or Mahler is rarely evident when he does program the Salzburg master’s works. Although he did reduce the orchestra’s size for Symphony no. 35 in D major “Haffner”, in a nod to period authenticity, the playing was pure Philadelphia sound, with impossibly smooth strings and a capaciousness that undercuts the purpose of deploying a smaller corps of musicians. (No matter how hard conductors try, a symphony orchestra will never be a chamber ensemble or a period-instrument group.) The effect is something akin to driving a Maserati: it fires on all cylinders, and you couldn’t ask for a more even ride, but you sometimes miss the distinctive bumpiness that comes with less polish.

The most fully realized performance of the night came in the form of the concluding Symphony no. 40 in G minor. Nézet-Séguin took a more relaxed tempo than I would have preferred — the opening movement is marked Molto allegro after all — but he did highlight the wonderfully idiosyncratic aspects of the composer’s scoring (two clarinets but no trumpets!). The final Allegro assai possessed a hint of the warmth and wit that have come to characterize the orchestra under his leadership, elements that had largely been absent during the rest of the night.