This week’s Beethoven concert from The Philadelphia Orchestra feels like a celebration. The maestro’s 250th birthday is next week, but the planned feting has been long delayed by the coronavirus. The Philadelphians were able to present roughly half of their Beethoven-heavy season before concert halls were shut, leaving a lot of tantalizing traversals on the table. Happily, they’re making up for lost time.

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

There have been few silver linings to this pandemic, but one positive byproduct is that orchestras cannot coast in the safety lane. With regard to Philadelphia, that means not relying solely on their famously lush, expansive string sound due to caps on ensemble size. The result is exciting, especially when you can hear a familiar work like Beethoven’s Coriolan overture with a refreshing crispness that more closely resembles a chamber orchestra or period-specific ensemble. Yannick Nézet-Séguin built a superb sense of tension that was sustained throughout the piece, a reminder that this was originally conceived as a conduit to a dramatic play. Those who expect a large, heroic performance might be disappointed by the relative slimness of this outing. To me, it represented a sense of pluck that’s exactly what’s needed as orchestras muddle toward the end of an extraordinarily difficult year.

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

Besides, richness and tradition could be found in Yefim Bronfman’s assumption of the Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. Bronfman has never been the most probing artist in my estimation, but he always brings a welcome sense of grandeur to the standard repertoire, with flashy trills, a generous sense of rubato and a consistent, unified approach to whatever he’s playing. He seemed in greater sync with Nézet-Séguin here than when the pair appeared in the Fourth Piano Concerto back in January, pre-shutdown at the Academy of Music.

Missy Mazzoli provided the thematic outlier with her Ecstatic Science, composed in 2016 for the chamber sextet yMusic. The work’s title evokes a science fiction movie, and the sound world isn’t far off. Arpeggios, pizzicatos and glissandos take an agitated tone in the strings, while clarinet, trumpet and flute seem to sputter along, unable to decide what notes they want to settle on. The effect is jarring, but also somewhat soothing — a kind of sublime ugliness that ultimately gives way to something recognizably harmonic. The ten-minute piece eventually wears out its welcome with too many repeated ideas, but there’s no doubt that Mazzoli, composer of the acclaimed operas Breaking the Waves and Proving Up, is a major contemporary talent.



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

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