OUR World Digital Stage

Philadelphia Orchestra Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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The Philadelphia Orchestra musicians are together again on the Verizon Hall stage in Philadelphia, in masks or positioned behind Plexiglas partitions, performing in an otherwise empty concert hall. Their concerts are being filmed for the orchestra’s rebooted fall Digital Stage season, broadcast from the Philorch.org website at very reasonable single ticket and subscription admissions. and two months into the online series has proved a success with fans and attracting new audiences online.

Musical-director-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is also using the platform to introduce his vision for the orchestra going forward, as the orchestra is engaged with Philadelphia’s cultural organizations during this challenging time.  And musically, Nézet-Séguin is expanding the orchestra’s commitment to being to more artistically diverse. Programming repertory by women composers, past and present. More inclusive of musicians and composers of color to represent a more representative range of classical and contemporary orchestral and choral works.

Two months into the online programming of paywall single tickets and subscriber numbers increasing, the online broadcasts of the orchestra’s Digital Stage series have proved a success in maintaining its audience and even expanding it internationally.

-the following are performance highlights from recent the orchestra’s virtual series-

Verizon Hall, Oct. 12-15

Philadelphia Orchestra’s conductor fellow Lina Gonzalez-Granados led the Livestream with   introducing her program of works of thematically connected compositions by Hector Villa-Lobos, Boris Glazunov, and Antonin Dvorak. She also commented on what it is like to be back onstage engaging with the musicians after so many months working in isolation.

Jazz great Branford Marsalis was the soloist on two works. He first performed Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia. He noted that the composer didn’t come through the standard classical training, and “his writing has the absence of European formalism.”

Marsalis obtained the original score, performing it in the original key of F. “which sounds much better” Marsalis noted. At its premiere, the soloist couldn’t play in the key that Villa-Lobos composed it in, so it was standardized in a lower key.  Structurally this sax concerto is fusion of Brazilian orchestral and classical idioms and Marsalis illuminates all of the flavors. On Glazunov’s Saxophone concerto, Marsalis said even though the composer fled Russia after the revolution and was in artistic exile in Paris, there is “melancholy and yearning for Russia…. that’s what I try to think of when I’m playing this piece.” Both works have virtuosic solo passages and Marsalis’ was in top form, but completely in the musical zone with the rest of the orchestra.

Because the musicians are more spread out on Verizon’s extended stage, the detailing on Dvorak’s rarely performed Wind Symphony is doubly impressive. Among the outstanding soloists on this work- principal oboist Philippe Tondre, hornist Jennifer Montone, and cellist Hai-Ye Ni.

Dec. 3, Verizon Hall

 Yannick Nézet-Séguin is much admired for his interpretations of works by composer Gustav Mahler, most memorably what he brings to the composer’s Symphony no 5.

In this performance Nézet-Séguin proved even more impressive with a reduced orchestra for Mahler’s innovative 4th symphony.  The full orchestra shrunk from 80 to 20 musicians who delivered a vivid, even revelatory performance of this monumental work. Nézet-Séguin articulating its classical luster and vividness with smaller orchestration as a chamber piece. 

The sound of sleigh bells in the opening bars are evocative of old world culture, romantic era symphonic vistas.  The familiar sonata form of the orchestra builds those themes, but Mahler’s builds in dynamic mis-en-scenes that foreshadows of 20th century modernism and symphonic structur

The protagonist in the 4th is the piano, softly percussive at first, then bursting forth in dramatic runs and arch density. It is a technical live high wire and pianist Kiyoko Takeuti’s performance is spellbinding.   

Mahler’s verse ‘The Heavenly Life’ sung by soprano Janai Brugger, comprises the final movement. It is an unexpectedly earthy and ethereal child’s verse where saints and children and fauna are dancing and singing and feasting. A realm of musical utopia which Brugger vocal warmth and sonorous precision is resplendent.

Also on the program is Jesse Montgomery’s miniature ‘Starburst’ which she introduced before the performance, that she composed it specifically to ignite all of the textures and colors of the Philadelphia strings, which it certainly does. The percussive drive of those strings build propulsive and vivid orchestral streams. 

Dec. 7, free broadcast chamber trio concert, Woodmere Museum

At the historic Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, pianist Natalie Zhu, cellist Hai-Ne Yi and violinist Margaret Govatos performed a sublime chamber trio concert among meditative modern masterworks by French impressionists.  Zhu and Yi played the 1st movement of Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata.  It is one of Barber’s most soul- searching, musically compelling works. Yi’s soulful playing lines just goes through your body. Zhu sublime clarity pacing the angularity of Barber’s piano meditations. Next, Barbara Govatos introduces Jennifer Higdon’s chamber piece ‘Pale Yellow’ commenting that the composer theme of colors musically, the way an impressionist artist would. Govatos joining the Zhu & Ni. Govatos lush tone and classical technical artistry. Higdon’s classicism laced with echoes of bluegrass fiddling.  The counterpoints and progression with gorgeously bursting radiant lines from all three players. The concert concluded with Govatos and Zhu digging deep into the baroque virtuosity of J.S Bach’s Violin sonata no.

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