This Philadelphia Orchestra program amounted to the loveliest of celebrations of its wind section. The vast majority of the performance was devoted to Mozart’s most ambitious essay for wind ensemble, but a thoroughly enjoyable opener was to be had in the shape of Valerie Coleman’s Red Clay and Mississippi Delta. Coleman is a composer this orchestra has engaged to acclaim recently, including during the current season’s opening performance that saw her Seven O’Clock Shout resound as a heartfelt tribute to the frontline workers of the Covid pandemic. The work on this program dates from 2009, and references her family’s roots in the deep south.

Philadelphia Orchestra horns
© Jeff Fusco

An accomplished flutist – and founder of the often groundbreaking Imani Winds – Coleman adroitly scored the work for wind quintet, in the present performance featuring Philadelphia principals Patrick Williams (flute), Philippe Tondre (oboe), Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), and Jennifer Montone (horn). Each instrument occupied the outsized personality of a lively family, brimming with virtuosic interplay. Bluesy bellows in the clarinet were a highlight, occasionally bringing to mind Rhapsody in Blue. Near the end, sounds of the biomechanical variety – namely, snapping fingers – added to the work’s irresistible charm.

Seven movements, thirteen players, and nearly an hour long: Mozart’s Gran Partita is certainly the crowning achievement of his uncanny ability to write for winds. In emphasizing the work’s symphonic dimension, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took to the podium to offer the ensemble his keen guidance. The slow introduction set a tone of weight and pathos from the onset as the individual voices were introduced in harmonious balance. Worthy of mention was the pair of basset horns (Paul Demers and Socrates Villegas), played with a natural fluency despite their infrequent use in the repertoire; their alto range offered a rich, honeyed timbre. A busy bass line in the contrabassoon (Holly Blake) underpinned the entire ensemble.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Philippe Tondre
© Jeff Fusco

The first of the Minuets was a stately affair, with lighter trios capitalizing on the mellifluous tones of the blended winds. I can’t listen to the third movement Adagio without being reminded of Salieri’s indelible (if fictitious) quote from Amadeus: “this was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.” It put recently appointed principal oboe Philippe Tondre in the spotlight, and he delivered the intensely lyrical melodic line with rapturous beauty.

A second Minuet followed and offered contrast in its sprightly dance rhythms. The Romance functioned as an extended moment of repose, and the penultimate movement’s set of variations were a study in subtly and acute attention to detail amongst these thirteen equally matched players. The sixth and last variation was a spirited enterprise, only to be outdone by the vivacious virtuosity of rondo finale.

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