Two small-scale works, one of them originally monumental, made a delightful program as The Philadelphia Orchestra gave its first performances ever of a short but “stellar” new work for strings and a “mini-Mahler” symphony. The program was part of the Orchestra’s Digital Stage series of short but significant concerts featuring new talent and old masters.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jeff Fusco

Starburst is the title of the three-minute selection for strings by Jessie Montgomery, a composer, violinist and graduate fellow at Princeton University. In the space of 180 seconds, Montgomery unleashes a universe of ideas, showcasing the amazing variety of sounds and effects that string sections can produce through techniques such as pizzicato, glissando and sub ponticello (playing behind the bridge). With skillful playing by members of the string section under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the work had a silky sound propelled by lively rhythms, outlining a form that, for all its brevity, was balanced, full of surprises, and well-shaped.  

The main feature was Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major, but this wasn’t your grandparent’s Fourth. Slimmed down to fewer than 25 musicians, the orchestra performed a chamber version by Erwin Stein, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Stein’s version debuted in 1921, some 20 years after Mahler completed the original orchestration, at Vienna’s Society for Private Musical Performances which Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and friends founded in 1918 to advocate for and perform new music.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra © Jeff Fusco
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

Considering how drastically the orchestral forces have been reduced, the Stein edition is totally engaging once a listener adjusts to a sense of musical weightlessness. I found it refreshing to hear the themes and colors so starkly and clearly defined. The sparse orchestration emphasized the rhythmic precision in each of the four movements. Instead of piano four hands, as specified by Stein, an organ and piano filled in where any elements were lacking, a very satisfying solution. All the orchestra members had opportunities to shine, including new principal oboe, Philippe Tondre.

The effect of all this gravity-defiance was a first movement as light and airy as a soiree in Old Vienna, including a clip from Haydn’s Clock Symphony (or so it seemed). Following an effectively eerie second movement, sort of a drunken dance with xylophone, the work drifted into the restful Ruhevoll, one of those achingly beautiful movements that Mahler did so well. The orchestra played this moody section smoothly and precisely. The only criticism I would have, and this is very minor, is I found myself noticing the clip-clop of descending quarter notes in the basses and piano more than I would have liked. A rhythmic effect that is almost undetectable in a large orchestra, like a heartbeat, stood out in a way I found a little distracting. But it in no way spoiled the complexity and mysterious beauty of this movement.

The Fourth ends with a child’s joyful vision of heaven, Das himmlische Leben, sung eloquently by soprano Janai Brugger. We heard again the English horn (Jonathan Blumenfeld) and recalled that you can take some of the instruments out of the symphony, but you can’t take the magic out of Mahler.


 This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream