On Friday night, the Philadelphia Orchestra played a concert in its New York home, Carnegie Hall. The orchestra was conducted by its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is also the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, whose orchestra he will lead in Carnegie Hall this coming Friday.
The Philadelphia concert was all-Russian, with a brief (and wonderful) exception. It began with Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, written in 1908 for his late teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The work was lost until just a few years ago. It comes right out of the Russian school of which Rimsky-Korsakov was an exemplar. It reminded me, in fact, of The Invisible City of Kitezh, the Rimsky-Korsakov opera. Valery Gergiev brought it to the Metropolitan Opera House in 2003.
In Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphians played Stravinsky’s song with beauty and feeling. Also expertise. The piece gives opportunities for principals to shine, and these principals took nice advantage.
Next on the program was a piano concerto, namely Prokofiev’s No. 3. Serving as soloist was Beatrice Rana, the young Italian sensation. She has a very enthusiastic press. And she did herself credit in the Prokofiev.
He requires virtuosity, which she has. He also requires bluntness, or percussiveness, which she displayed in abundance. How about cunning, swagger, spookiness, and a pinch of jazz? He requires those, too, which Signorina Rana displayed rather less of.
Furthermore, her rhythm was sometimes imperfect, and there were coordination problems between her and the orchestra. Nézet-Séguin, for his part, lent great expressiveness to the concerto.
But the final pages? They were a letdown. They ought to be almost unbearable. A listener should be out of his mind with excitement. But, on this occasion, the climax was anti-climactic, at least to my mind.
Let me pause, at this point, for three footnotes.
(1) The Philadelphia’s principal clarinet, Ricardo Morales, is always an asset, and he was certainly that in the Prokofiev.
(2) The end of the first movement cries out for applause. It is unnatural—almost perverse—not to applaud. Many in Carnegie Hall’s audience duly applauded, and neither the soloist nor the conductor acknowledged this. Instead, they talked to each other. I regard this as an error.
(3) Beatrice Rana wore a beautiful yellow gown, with no shoulders. (I mean, she had shoulders, but the garment did not.) It’s a pleasure to see something bright—something other than black—onstage. Maestro Nézet-Séguin wore what looked, from my seat, like a white tunic.
Actually, I had better append a fourth footnote. So . . .
(4) Some readers don’t like these sartorial notes or other extra-musical notes. They think a review should include only pure music criticism. This is unjournalistic. A concert review is a form of journalism, and of reporting. What did it look like? What did it sound like, smell like, and feel like? These are questions you can expect to be answered, in a proper concert review.
After the Prokofiev concerto, Rana sat down for an encore: an étude of Chopin. It was the Étude in A flat, Op. 25, No. 1, known as the “Aeolian Harp.” Rana played it with limpidity, intelligence, and panache. This was a first-rate “Aeolian.” Tbh, as they say on social media (“To be honest”), I was wondering what all the fuss was about, during the concerto. Such playing as was heard in the encore is deserving of fuss.
On the second half of the concert, the Philadelphians played a symphony: the Symphony No. 1 of Rachmaninoff. Now, you sometimes hear that the Philadelphia is a “Rachmaninoff orchestra.” Under Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia was the leading Rachmaninoff orchestra in the world, and it was also the favorite orchestra of Rachmaninoff himself.
As a Rachmaninoff conductor, Ormandy was nonpareil. Seek out the recordings—YouTube makes it easy—if you desire confirmation. Seek out not only the studio recordings but live ones, too. Thrilling and correct, both.
Eugene Ormandy is in a curious position, as I see it: famous and underrated. He has long been the object of envy, and then there is the factor of ignorance. Perhaps I will do an essay on Ormandy and his reputation one day.
But back to the point I was making, or wanting to make: They say that the Philadelphia Orchestra is a Rachmaninoff orchestra. They say that the New York Philharmonic is a Mahler orchestra, because Mahler directed the Philharmonic a million years ago. Personally, I don’t believe in Rachmaninoff orchestras, Mahler orchestras, etc. I think the internationalization of orchestral life has rendered these things null and void. In a sense, orchestras are interchangeable these days, for better or worse.
Perhaps that should be an essay too (a controversial one).
Regardless, the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Nézet-Séguin, delivered a wonderful performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1. The symphony, whatever it weaknesses, has heart: a Romantic heart and a Russian heart. The conducting and the playing had those hearts too. The music is both classical and (somewhat) folkloric. The Philadelphians’ performance incorporated those aspects.
Here is a complaint, though not a big one: the playing was sometimes too polished, too pretty, too gleaming. I might have liked a bit of a growl, or some roughness around the edges. Also, some entrances were smudged, and the pizzicatos at the end of the slow movement were poor. (When aren’t they?)
Still, the beauty and (again) heart of this performance overcame everything. Nézet-Séguin conducted the symphony, and the orchestra played it, as though they loved it. I suppose they do. Friday night in Carnegie Hall was a banner musical night.
If it weren’t such a cliché, I’d title this review “From Russia with Love.”