The Philadelphia Orchestra opened the Carnegie Hall season last Wednesday under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who becomes music director of the Metropolitan Opera in the 2020/21 season. The band played a program of all 20th-century American music featuring Gershwin’s evergreen Rhapsody in Blue, an extensive selection from Leonard Bernstein, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and the Orchestral suite from On the Waterfront celebrating the composer’s centennial which is coming up in 2018. Much like Gershwin, who brought together classical music and jazz to create such well-known works as Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, Bernstein revolutionized American music by attempting to combine Broadway musical with the symphony hall. His mix of lyrical and angular music is the driving force behind his magnum opus West Side Story. The same can be said for his work in On the Waterfront which brings out the verismo-like quality of the story of high passions in a community of New York City dock workers. The concert featured two prominent soloists: Lang Lang, recovering from an inflammatory illness; and the great jazz pianist Chick Corea.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chick Corea, Maxim Lando and Lang Lang © Chris Lee
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chick Corea, Maxim Lando and Lang Lang
© Chris Lee

Both Gershwin and Bernstein have earned a place in the pantheon of 20th-century American composers for their ability to combine styles. When Bernstein wrote West Side Story (1957) he wanted to elevate musical theater by including techniques of classical composition. Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1791) was his ideal model for its mixture of popular “show tunes,” and classical idioms. Similarly, when Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 for the concert ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’ his goal was to increase Jazz’s appeal by using elements of the genre in a classical composition. The famous clarinet wail that begins the piece was not Gershwin’s idea, it was added during rehearsal by members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

The Philadelphia Orchestra performed admirably as did Lang Lang’s protégé, 14-year-old Maxim Lando, performing as Lang Lang's left-hand in this two-piano version. During On The Waterfront there were mournful horn and plaintive flute solos. The Orchestra struck a balance between ferocity and delicacy. In the more violent sections, it was barely controlled chaos. They emphasized pungent rhythmic and swirling string figures. Nézet-Séguin's attention to dynamics and tempo shifts made slow sections more introspective. This was also true for the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the brass sounding majestic in the final section.

The Orchestra provided buoyant accompaniment to the Rhapsody in Blue. It opened with a sultry clarinet solo, that began with a bubbly trill, and easily soared into the upper register. There were other jazz effects, like growls in the brass that were heightened. However, piano solos were too virtuosic. It was fun to see what they could do, but moments like the improvised tango duet ended up distracting from the piece as a whole.

The Symphonic Dances shed light on Bernstein’s creative instrumental combinations. The interplay between strings, bells, drums and xylophone took center-stage. Through the conductor’s handling of tempo and dynamics, he highlighted the quick changes throughout the piece. Movements like the Fugue based on “Cool” seemed to come from nowhere, develop, and end just as fast. During this piece, the audience had a blast as there was plenty of toe-tapping during the Mambo. People laughed when the players snapped their fingers, either in homage to the Jets marking their territory, or at Tony and Maria’s first meeting.

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