The teenager in front of me texted throughout the performance. The couple across the aisle stage whispered to each other about their post-concert plans. The mother-daughter pair to my right kept rifling through their handbags and unzipping their jackets. And I couldn’t even fault these annoying breaches of etiquette. When the central work on an evening’s program comes across as sedate as Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major did with the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend, you start looking for other ways to amuse yourself. If only I’d have brought a book.

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Hai Ye-Ni
© Pete Checchia

Works of the Classical period sometimes get swallowed up in Verizon Hall, where the acoustic favors a rich, enveloping sound rather than the individuated details that make this music compelling. There is also frequently a push and pull in terms of performance style, with conductors unsure whether to privilege a more modern, full-bodied approach or to incorporate aspects of historical practice into their interpretations. On this occasion, the result fell into a no man’s land. David Robertson failed to offer much in the way of a personal perspective, in a reading that lacked distinct accents or any sense of stakes. Aside from some piquant contributions from the horns in the third movement, this was background music through and through.

Likewise, the qualities that make Principal Cello Hai-Ye Ni a superb section leader – an elegant but modest tone, an almost serene sense of repose on stage – worked against her as a soloist. Her cadenzas in the Moderato were pretty but bland, and her sound turned buzzy and cloying in the Adagio. The orchestra overwhelmed her in the Finale, even as Robertson’s worked generously to moderate the dynamics. I’ve heard less accomplished playing with this Orchestra, but rarely less interesting. She offered no encore.

Robertson’s reading of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F major suffered a similar fate – you could hardly ask for more ravishing playing, yet it came at the expense of any distinctive point of view. I had expected this conductor, a champion of contemporary music, to lean into the rougher edges of Beethoven’s great paean to nature. Instead, the Tempest barely registered as a drizzle, and the birdsong in the Scene by the Brook sounded anemic and undernourished. The strings demonstrated their customary warmth in the Allegro ma non troppo, but the extreme languor of Robertson’s sluggish tempo turned the nature walk into an aimless amble.

Luckily, the concert featured the local premiere of Reena Esmail’s RE|Member, a dazzling tone poem that reflects on the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic. The short piece opened with the high-pitched wail of a solo oboe (Principal Philippe Tondre), which seemed to be shouting into the void as the writing became more agitated and ornamented. Soon, the single instrument was swamped by a battery of percussion, with music coming at the listener from every direction. The sense of disorientation was palpable and appropriately jarring. Punchy strings and lightly textured woodwind dominate until Tondre returned to share a final duet with fellow oboist Peter Smith, which concluded the seven-minute work on a sweet, hopeful note. I couldn’t help but wonder what Esmail might do with a full-scale concerto.