The Philadelphia Orchestra performs every summer at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park, but on June 24 it would be the first time musical director Yannick Nezet-Seguin would on the podium at the open-air venue. And he made it count, the programming that included the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and two formidable Community choirs and then with a seismic performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
In May the Philadelphia Orchestra returned from a three-week tour in China, then launched into with extended June concerts in Verizon Hall, that culminated the sold-out three days of a concert staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which became the hottest ticket in town when it was announced that Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan would narrate.
Just two days after Candide performance, Nezet-Seguin was at the Mann in what struck as a spectacular season encore performance to a capacity crowd at 4,100+ seating (& lawn terrace environs) of the Mann Center.
The high humidity and having the orchestra amplified could greatly have affected the sound quality of the orchestra, leading to flatter or muddier sound, but not an issue on this night, the acoustics were sharp, the orchestra sinuous and spiking through the air in all of its dimension.
Starting with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra’s supple performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which even heard from outside the venue (owing to a short delay in getting in the gate on time).
Nolan Williams, Jr. came on to conduct the Youth Orchestra in ‘Selections from Philadelphia Community Mass’ all faith-themed compositions in various styles, using different liturgy, modeled Williams told the audience on the ecumenical approach of Bernstein’s Mass. The four parts by contemporary composers Evelyn Simpson Curenton, Jay Fluellen, Ruth Naomi Floyd, and Rollo Dilworth. With featured soloists- tenor Charles Miller, sopranos Paula D. Holloway and Tessika McClendon. The highlight was Dilworth’s ‘Agnus Dei’ a jazz-blues/choral-orchestral with a blazing soprano sax lead by Mark Allen and Dilworth, on the Hammond organ.
After intermission, Yannick was back and looking particularly energized in his maestro tunic and introducing Beethoven’s 9th, reminding the audience of its themes of peace and harmony “Something that can’t be repeated enough.” It was easy to see how engaged and expressive he is with the musicians while conducting because of the new screens the Mann Center has, unobtrusively positioned on both sides of the open air proscenium stage
One of Nezet-Seguin’s signatures is to equalize the large symphonic works and the 9th is always a majestic hi-def mountain to climb. No need to vamp the most famous passages, the balance of the whole work is realized and everything builds organically via the detailing and thrust of the orchestra and choirs.
Easy to get swept up in the poetry of the woodwinds, and of course, the 9th’s blazing brass, and the free bowing muscle in the violins and the 9th’s blazing brass, not to mention mythic sonics coming through timpanist Don Liuzzi’s kettles drums. Peter Smith is routinely virtuosic, but what he brought to the oboe solos in the 9th is truly memorable. Other outstanding principals Jennifer Montone (French horn), Jeffrey Khaner (flute), David Kim (violin).
In the final movement the quartet of soloists sing the variation of Johann von Shiller’s poem Ode to Joy– soprano Michelle Bradley, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum, baritone Kidon Choi and especially tenor Kang Wang, this quartet owned this technically demanding intro to perhaps the most recognized symphonic chorale in music history, and the combined choirs thundering in mightily. Not lost on this crowd who cheered lustily.
Nezet-Seguin announced that this was the first of the orchestra’s plan to perform all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in the coming season to observe the composer’s 250th birth.
Nezet-Seguin has ushered the Philadelphia Orchestra into its new era that bodes very well for his commitment to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic legacy, and continuing to break artistic barriers in contemporary classical music. The orchestra’s future even more secure with the announcement in May of a $55-million dollar endowment to the orchestra by anonymous donors.
The orchestra performs several concerts at the Mann Center during the summer, and upcoming annual tour dates at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York and Bravo! Vail Festival in Colorado.