The Philadelphia Orchestra intended to welcome Myung-Whun Chung to its podium this weekend after a 23-year absence. Visa snafus kept the South Korean conductor from traveling stateside, pressing Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Assistant Conductor Kensho Watanabe into emergency service. At the second of three performances, the younger maestro displayed the intelligence and agility that has made him a favorite with local audiences since his days as a conducting fellow at the Curtis Institute.

Kensho Watanabe © David Debalko
Kensho Watanabe
© David Debalko

Watanabe is no stranger to the Einspringer experience: two years ago, he made his solo debut leading the orchestra by substituting for Nézet-Séguin on just a few hours’ notice. He led his first full subscription series, an all-Tchaikovsky program, this February, but he showed a clear comfort stepping into a repertoire set by someone else. The concert selections remained unchanged from Chung’s original planning, a conservative “overture, concerto, symphony” set-up.

The bill was seemingly devised to highlight this band’s greatest strengths – chiefly, its legendary strings and incomparable brass – and Watanabe delivered on that mandate. The Overture to Weber’s Der Freischütz unfurled with foreboding menace that developed into a vigorous emotional outburst, as the stately opening bars gave way to a riot of piquant strings and woodwinds that anticipate Wagner’s coming sound world. A balance between lightness of texture and bursts of complexity kept the audience engaged throughout. The quartet of French horns that signify the opera’s woodland setting, anchored here by principal horn Jennifer Montone, made a particularly valuable contribution.

If the Weber sounded fantastic but familiar, Watanabe embedded a great deal of personality into Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, diving into the work with confidence and a forceful hand. It sounded like youth personified – a balance of received wisdom and contemporary thought about how this music should be played. The violins played with the lean pluck of a chamber orchestra in the Allegro con brio, and it was impossible to ignore how forward-looking and perceptive the movement, which brims with dissonance, still seems.

The death-besotted Marcia funebre: Adagio assai felt appropriately unsettling, but not so preoccupied with maudlin over-expression that the players neglected the sprightly, dancelike music that underpins the more serious mood. The third and fourth movements, played without pause, remained in line with tradition – everything got bigger and grander as the piece moved toward its coda – but managed to still come across as a discovery. Maybe it was Watanabe’s winning exuberance rubbing off. 

If any aspect disappointed, it was Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor and the setback belonged to pianist Jonathan Biss. From the beginning, it seemed an ill match of soloist and repertoire; Biss, who favors a seamlessly blended style of playing, struggled to convey the work’s thorny nature. Schumann certainly subscribed to the Romantic ideal of a concerto as a clash between the individual and the collective, but Biss didn’t get the memo. And although his gestures often tended toward sweep and grandeur – with plenty of flailing limbs and forceful finger movements – the actual sound emerged as timid and tinny.

The general misguidedness of the solo playing caused me to pay attention to the orchestral contributions in the piece in a way I hadn’t before. Watanabe managed to keep his side of the operation consistently interesting. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld, flutist Patrick Williams, and timpanist Angela Zator Nelson especially stood out among the impressive ranks.

Yet above all, the 31-year-old Watanabe walked away with the afternoon. In a few weeks, he will leave his Assistant Conductor post to embark on a freelance career, one that hopefully will include many return visits to Philadelphia.