For the most recent of their regular visits to Carnegie Hall, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra proposed a program that was essentially the same as the one they played in front of their home audience during the current week’s subscription series. With one exception: they replaced a Haydn overture with Nico Mulhy’s suite based on his opera Marnie. Named Liar (the opera’s main character is a stylish and troubled woman in 1950s England that repeatedly changes her identity after cheating on her employers) the opus had its world premiere last September in Philadelphia.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Jan Lisiecki at Carnegie Hall © Steve Sherman
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Jan Lisiecki at Carnegie Hall
© Steve Sherman

When Marnie was lavishly staged – also this season – at the Metropolitan Opera, Muhly’s post-minimalist music seemed more illustrative than fully integrated with Nicholas Wright’s rather wordy libretto. On its own, without the distractions of the happenings on the stage, it seemed much more powerful. The composer picked multiple segments from Marnie and combined them in a different order. The resulting unified structure keeps the shimmering, atmospheric quality of the original intact, but better depicts the title character’s mental tribulations. Marnie’s vocal lines are fully transferred to the oboe, her alter-ego in the opera’s score. In a similar vein, the role of Mark Rutland, her insistent and brutal husband, is taken over by the trombone, and her controlling mother's by a solo viola. 37-old Muhly’s great gift as an orchestrator and his ability to construct colorful and suggestive textures were carefully brought forward by Nézet-Séguin and the members of the orchestra. Clearly an independent work of art, the twenty-minutes-long Liar has all the attributes to rapidly find its way in the repertoire of all those orchestras eager to prove their allegiance to contemporary music.

Jan Lisiecki at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra © Steve Sherman
Jan Lisiecki at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Steve Sherman

Now almost 24, pianist Jan Lisiecki has been at the forefront of the international musical scene for nearly a decade. His talent is widely recognized, but listeners have many a times discerned a certain froideur in his playing. The doubts couldn’t be fully dispelled by playing a score of limited range as Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 is. Nevertheless Lisiecki, besides displaying his prodigious technique, imbued his interpretation with hints of Mozartian elegance and Chopinesque nostalgic romanticism. The beautiful rendering of the Adagio was echoed in Lisiecki’s delicate approach to the encore – the Lied ohne Worte Op.19 no. 6 – part of those truly wonderful miniatures unfortunately rarely deemed worth to be played on a stage.

The link between the two 19th-century works on the program wasn’t just the big Beethoven shadow that they both bask in. Mendelssohn conducted the first public performance of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major in Leipzig, a decade after the composer’s death. When he took the score to Paris or London, a couple of years later, orchestras were reluctant to play it due to its uncommon length and embedded difficulties. Today, Schubert’s last symphonic effort is in the standard repertoire of orchestras big and small, but few performances in recent memory had the brilliance of the one offered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on Friday night. 

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall © Steve Sherman
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
© Steve Sherman

Nézet-Séguin treated the four movements not as separate entities but as one whole, drawing an arc from the initial heralding horns to the final frenzied tutti and pacing the entire musical evolution with a wonderful sense of timing. At the same time, he kept an attentive eye on details such as the melodic transitions from one instrument to the next that were unbelievable smooth. In the Andante, the one-measure pause between the climax and the Pianissimo, cello-intoned melody that follows had an almost Brucknerian quality. Overall, if the brass playing wasn’t always perfect, the strings’ sound – from the subtle countercurrents that Nézet-Séguin meticulously underlined to the precise rhythmic articulations in the Finale – had an outstanding richness. From wherever he is, Eugene Ormandy must have smiled knowingly.

*****