Philadelphia Orchestra's Dynamic Conductor Lifts Old Heavyweights

By Adam J. Sacks

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Chris Lee / Philadelphia Orchestra

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Chris Lee / Philadelphia Orchestra

Friendship and bombast. Strange bedfellows these terms might be, and it might further raise eyebrows to know that even heavy metal concerts have been mined as fodder for rituals of community. And the Philadelphia Orchestra Concert of December 1 was about the closest one could come to the equivalent of a heavy metal corner within the mainstream classical repertory. The focus and the stamina were so demanding and called for such a consistent level of high octane output, as dutifully recognized by the conductor, that something like headbanging for hours on end on a handful of power chords could easily come to mind.

Brahms and Dvorak, the friendship that made this concert possible and embodied so many of the polarities of late 19th Century life. The Old World and the New, large expanding nationality versus small and oppressed,  the folk and the most austere variant of the Romantic, student and teacher, judge and jury. In this case Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and Dvorak’s  explosive Seventh Symphony. Inspired by Brahms 3rd symphony, Dvorak quotes a theme from Brahms in the symphony’s first cello solo as a discreet thank you. Even in the adagio, Dvorak writes in eruptions that leap out and his scherzo, has a maniacal cheer that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin animates like a dancing boxer. The massive triumphalism of the coda is tempered by a sense of wistfulness that only adds to the drama of tragedy.

If coloration within sonic size may be a trademark of the “Philadelphia sound” Brahms concerto, the longest in history up to that point, is an ideal platform. Joined by the legendary pianist Emmanuel Ax, a humble and humourfull soloist, he weaved in an out of the horns combining intensity with a light touch. If Dvorak underpins bombast with tragedy, Brahms conveys a sense of the comic through his darkness. The solo cello of the andante, which Dvorak would later emulate, was itself inspired by Brahms’ quasi-forbidden love Clara Schumann, providing a taste of his Requiem,. The intensity of the deceleration of the tempo while maintaining such a forthright theme resembles nothing less than what a heavy metal lullaby might sound like.

This haunting of the female influence and role of women, for so long consigned to the shadows emerges again within this program by the inclusion of the American premiere of Stacey Brown’s “Perspectives.” Apparently a last minute add-on due to murmurs regarding the lack of compositions by women throughout the season, this work functions in tandem perhaps even better than the orchestra itself could be aware. A brief sculptural collage, that treats the orchestra as a kind of deconstructed palette, common among contemporary composers, this work maintains the rumbling storm and ominous crescendos heralded within the Brahms and Dvorak. Displacing a visual aesthetic experience into an auditory narrative, this work does convey a 3D experience of the shifting effects of light featuring some dazzling interplay in the percussion, especially the timpani. While in some sense the opposite of a respite or interlude, the sonic world of this piece does provide a hypersonic time machine forward out of the 19th century and into a brave new world.

Adam J Sacks holds a PhD from the Department of History at Brown University. He holds a Masters of Arts from Brown University, a Masters of Science (High Honors) from the City College of the City University of New York, and a Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University.