In a video screened during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s opening night concert, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin described the 122-year-old outfit as “a reborn institution”. A sense of rejuvenation certainly seemed evident throughout the gala evening – and not just due to the return of the traditional post-performance supper in the Kimmel Center lobby. After a cautious and occasionally middling return to live performance last season, the Philadelphians took the stage on 27th September with a renewed sense of confidence and swagger, which resulted in some of the finest music-making they've delivered in years.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jessica Griffin

In Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major, Nézet-Séguin achieved an intellectual triumph, threading a needle between the work’s pastoral influences and Romantic character. He also drew out the classic Philadelphia sound to great effect, with cello and first violins acting as if they were a single instrument, lush in texture and not afraid to push vibrato right up to the line of good taste. The Eighth sits right between Dvořák’s two great symphonic expressions, and it can sometimes feel relegated to little-brother status. This expressive and dead-serious reading proved it the equal of any work in the Late Romantic repertoire.

Principal flute Jeffrey Khaner delivered the first movement’s ethereal theme, gliding high above the building forces in the strings, offering a glimpse of silvery beauty amid the unpredictable volatility of nature. The filigree woodwinds contrasted magnificently with the forceful brass – gone were the tuning issues that frequently plagued this section last season (a summer vacation can do wonders). The warmth of the strings in the opening bars of the Adagio melted away into heavy tension, which dissipated into the lovely rural dance music that Dvořák appropriated for this movement. After a leisurely traversal of the Allegretto grazioso, the trumpet fanfares of the Allegro ma non troppo were rightly joyous. It felt like a call to exultation.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, BalletX and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jessica Griffin

The American composer Valerie Coleman’s Umoja, Anthem for Unity has become an audience favorite since its premiere in 2019, but it returned in a slightly new guise here. The orchestra commissioned local troupe BalletX to devise a brief dance to accompany the symphonic poem, with choreography from New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck. You could see the influence of Peck’s Balanchine training in the finished product, defined by perpetual motion and persistent groupings. It made sense with the music’s theme of togetherness, although it surprised me that a forward-thinking company like BalletX never pushed the boundaries of traditional, heterosexual couplings. My ear was drawn more to the sweeping Coplandesque character of the score than my eye was to the choreography.

Lang Lang, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jessica Griffin

For many in the crowd, the evening’s pièce de resistance was Lang Lang, whose special relationship to Philadelphia extends back to his student days at the Curtis Institute. He referred to the Philadelphians as “my favorite orchestra in the world” before his performance of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor. Lang Lang exhibited jaw-dropping technical ability throughout, flawlessly controlling dynamic range, producing a remarkable evenness of tone and not shying away from rubato to match Nézet-Séguin’s generous orchestral tempos. A more deeply interpretive artist probably could have brought greater insight to the piece’s many unaccompanied sections, but it was thrilling to watch Lang Lang and the Philadelphians approach the high-octane passages of the second and third movements at full throttle. As an encore, Lang Lang eschewed Schubert or Liszt in favor of the Sherman Brothers. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins emerged from the keyboard with rich coloring and a fair amount of schmaltz. It was the musical equivalent of a thick, chocolatey milkshake: you shouldn’t have it every day, but at the right moment, it can feel like a special treat.