Review: Carnegie Hall reopens with Philadelphia fire

After being closed for 572 days due to the pandemic, Carnegie Hall, the country’s preeminent concert space, opened its season on Wednesd...


After being closed for 572 days due to the pandemic, Carnegie Hall, the country’s preeminent concert space, opened its season on Wednesday. It only took a simple salute from the stage – “welcome back”, spoken by Clive gillinson, the executive and artistic director of the hall – so that the audience bursts into sustained cheers.

On paper, the Philadelphia Orchestra program – including favorites like Bernstein’s cheerful overture to ‘Candide’ and must-haves like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – seemed leaning toward the traditional goal of an opening night as a fundraising gala that would be popular with the crowd. . However, the choice of works and the dynamic musical creation have deepened the questions of the relevance and revival of classical music than I had anticipated.

Yannick Nézet Séguin, the orchestra’s musical director, began by conducting a performance of Valerie Coleman’s “Seven O’Clock Shout,” a work that Philadelphians premiered online in May. This five-minute score became the orchestra’s unofficial anthem for this difficult time. Inspired by the 7 p.m. cheers for frontline workers during the pandemic, the play offers a hard-earned vision of a more beautiful place.

It opens with cautious trumpet fanfares activating quivering strings. The music goes through passages of edgy riffs, burnished string chords, elegiac stillness and eruptive turmoil – with real screams and applause from the players. The piece has a Copland glow at times, but Coleman adds tangy harmonic adjustments and assertive syncopations that continually surprise.

The brilliant pianist Yuja Wang was the soloist in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a 1957 work considered one of the composer’s lightest and wittiest scores. But from the start, this performance – especially Wang’s towering and colorful play – seemed determined to search beneath the lively surface for allusions to the bitterly satirical Shostakovich.

As the orchestra played the chuckling, woodwind-animated opening theme, Wang almost slipped into the fray with a subtly lyrical rendering of the piano’s interrogative lines. Then, taking matters into her own hands, she sent bursts of brittle chords, threw out spooky tracks, and continued to bring out both the softly melodic elements and the steel elements of the three-movement work.

Then Nézet-Séguin, who, in his other role as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, currently conducts performances of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard turned to the overture “Candide” – and perhaps tried too hard to disentangle the jagged edges and multi-layered intricacies of Bernstein’s bubbly, playful music.

He then explained to the audience how the disruption of the pandemic shook our collective sense of “where we are, where we are going”, and explained the association of the last two works to the program: the short film “Jeder Baum spricht” Iman Habibi. (“Every Tree Speaks”) and Beethoven’s Fifth. The Habibi score, written in dialogue with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, premiered in Philadelphia on March 12, 2020, in an empty room, just after the start of the pandemic closures.

Habibi imagines how Beethoven, a nature lover, could respond to the current climate crisis. On Wednesday, the compelling piece emerged as a series of frustrated attempts at cohesion and peace, with choppy starts, hazy chords, and catchy but irregular rhythmic figures. Finally, there is a feeling, albeit uncomfortable, of assertiveness and brassy richness.

Without stopping, Nézet-Séguin plunges into Beethoven. And if you think this classic piece must sound heroic and monumental, this performance was not for you. Here is a brash and instant account. The tempos were constantly changing. Some passages rushed out of breath, culminating in episodes in which Nézet-Séguin brought out lyrical inner voices that you rarely hear so prominently. It was exciting and unpredictable. Beethoven felt like he was responding to Habibi, as much as the other way around.

The Philadelphians had planned to present a comprehensive study of the symphonies at Carnegie last season, as part of Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations. This cycle will now unfold in five programs over the next few months, most of these totemic works being preceded by new, shorter pieces. (Coming to Carnegie no less than seven times in all, the orchestra also performs more Coleman in February, alongside Barber and Florence Price, and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” in April.)

If the pairing and opening night performances were any indication, this series will be a stimulating conversation between classical music’s historic past and the tumultuous present.

Philadelphia Orchestra

Other Beethoven symphonic programs on October 20, November 9, December 7 and January 11 at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan; carnegiehall.org.

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