This month, the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, are exploring the music of composers associated with the musical milieu of Paris. It’s something audiences have been waiting for ever since the arrival of Maestro Nézet-Séguin in Philadelphia, because even though the conductor has made a name for himself for his interpretations of the symphonies of Bruckner and other Austro-German composers, his French Canadian background also gives him a natural affinity for the French musical aesthetic.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézét-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

That affinity was on full display in Week 1’s concert of the Paris Festival, which included music by six French composers. Nézet-Séguin wisely selected a mix of familiar and rarer repertoire, beginning with three shorter pieces on the program. Emmanuel Chabrier’s Joyeuse marche is the sort of thing that used to crop up on orchestral “pops” programs back in the era of Sir Thomas Beecham and Paul Paray, but one doesn’t encounter it so often these days. In addition to the syncopation, there was a real swagger in tonight’s performance, with Nézet-Séguin making it abundantly clear that Chabrier’s score is more “joyeuse” than “marche.”

The “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila is the kind of thing that can sound hackneyed – not least the hootchy-kootchy main theme that seems almost a caricature of Near Eastern melodies. But Nézet-Séguin avoided all that, turning in a performance that was both poetic and thrilling at all the right moments.

In between the splash of the Chabrier and Saint-Saëns was the poignancy of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, performed in its purely orchestral version. Nézet-Séguin’s tempo was remindful of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, and the pizzicato strings – so important in this work – were sheer perfection.

The balance of the program was taken up by less familiar fare. The Menuet antique by Maurice Ravel – an early piano piece he orchestrated much later – may not be particularly representative of the composer’s style, but it is brilliant nonetheless. The Philadelphia performance was particularly winsome in the middle section, with its gorgeous harmonic modulations performed flawlessly by the woodwinds.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham joined the orchestra in singing seven selections from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. These pieces, in which the composer envelops classic folk melodies in a gorgeously silky yet transparent orchestral treatment, fairly epitomize French clarity of style.

The jaunty Chut, Chut, Lou Coucut and Malurous qu’e uno fenno benefited from Ms. Graham’s stage presence in addition to her highly effective vocal treatments, but I found several of the other more contemplative selections even more compelling. The Berceuse was beautifully interpreted, and Uno jionto postoure may well have been the emotional high-point of the entire set. Ms. Graham turned each of these chansons into its own special gem, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia players offered sympathetic accompaniment, achieving some really rapturous moments.

Closing out the concert was a near-rarity, Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé. Schmitt was a contemporary of Debussy and Ravel but outlived both of them by decades. His original Salome ballet score dates from 1907 but was later shortened and recast by the composer for large forces featuring orchestration in the grandest post-Rimsky tradition. In 1912 it was staged at the Paris Opéra in a memorable evening of dance alongside ballets of Ravel, d’Indy and Dukas. These days the piece is almost always presented as a symphonic suite.

Maestro Nézet-Séguin has made this piece something of a personal specialty. He’s presented it in Europe and recorded it with Canada’s Orchestre Metropolitain – and tonight’s performance hewed pretty closely to that interpretation. The opening “Prelude” exhibits the very best in French tonal painting and was positively dripping with atmosphere. The “Pearl Dance” that followed was taken at a bracing tempo, building to such a tremendous climax that it generated spontaneous applause in the audience. Then, as the mood became progressively darker and more foreboding, the orchestra brought forth the full drama of the music, which at times seemed more akin to Richard Strauss than anything “French.”

In the concluding “Dance of Lightning” and “Dance of Fright,” Nézet-Séguin pulled out all the stops – the jagged rhythms punctuated by heavy brass, bass drum and tam-tam strikes as the ballet hurtled towards the final cataclysm. It was a thrilling ending befitting the melodramatic story line, with Maestro Nézet-Séguin wringing every ounce of passion and power from the players. All throughout the work, the brass and winds – oboe and cor anglais in particular – were stunning.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was the first time in nearly a century that Schmitt’s Salomé had been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra – and about time, too, since it made the best possible case for the brilliance and sophistication of France’s undisputed “golden age” of classical music.