Tonight was the opening concert for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2017-18 season. There was palpable excitement; they know that their man, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is on the way to the Met in 2020. The atmosphere was heightened; attendance high and enthused. What is the place of the organ in the contemporary orchestra? Yannick Nézet-Séguin announced that it was an intention of some of the season’s programmes to deepen the connection between “both orchestras”, the organ and the orchestra proper. Tonight was the east coast première for Resilience, fruit of the creative partnership of organist Paul Jacobs and composer Wayne Oquin. Oquin has conceived a deeply moral work and, in its way, a work to lift morale: he wants the musical intensity of the organ to mirror real-life values of tenacity and perseverance amidst tumultuous forces. The organ is his hero, battling against the odds.

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

So we are privy to a massive and continual dialogue and struggle between the two. There is much fierceness and frantic tumult, but also quiet and eerie faraway sounds. The orchestra played with violence and attack, thrashing down the organ towards the end, leaving him with nothing but the pedals. Jacobs was virtuosic: Oquin, watching from the audience near me, was on the edge of his seat. Sometimes when contemporary works are placed at the very start of an evening programme, one feels that it is the perfunctory debt owed to those creatives who have the misfortune to be still alive (the posthumous is sacred), but I did not feel that here. There was passionate engagement on all sides, a vigorous seizure of the meaning of this work.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major is the last of his works in the genre, composed in the year before his death, a fact that has made musicologists quite busy in “discovering” possible musical premonitions within the work. Emanuel Ax gave a gentlemanly and refined rendition, pretty much unruffled and soft-spoken throughout. There was a little scuffling, a little sloppiness here and there; perhaps also, one might accuse him of erring on the side of the overly sedate. Mozart is never a “meat and two veg” composer, in fairness: his music has more of the qualities of a soufflé. Still, for all the lightness of touch, there is a way of making him sound a little bloodless, a little too ineffectually polite. I thought there was more feeling in the Larghetto at times, and certainly the rapport between Ax and Nézet-Séguin (the two are close friends) was lovely to see.

But the highlight of the evening was most certainly Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This was the kind of playing that made one hear the whole symphony in an entirely new way. It shook off the dust and made a claim for itself. Nézet-Séguin is a cult figure these days and you can see why. He is so very expressive, so consistently and variously engaged with all the orchestra and each part of it, and so much master of the whole, that you quickly realize that here is someone who exudes charisma. Watching him make himself all things to all players is dazzling. The overall effect is a product, no doubt, of a myriad of details in rehearsal, and interactions between conductor and orchestra that we are not privy to. But my goodness, you can hear the results. They respond to his every nuance, it would seem; the sound ripples and tumbles forth, and he whips them up into a state of intensity that is exciting and electrifying. They had plenty of scope for excitement here; the end of the first movement was so thrilling that spontaneous applause broke out, only to be silenced by a disapproving wag of his baton. The audience adore him; they fell silent. Not so at the end – another rousing finish – when they were able to give full rein to their enthusiasm. 

****1