Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra offer a Russian-French tableau

Wed Jan 25, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Jan Regan

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night. Washington audiences have grown used to these visits, presented in most seasons by Washington Performing Arts, as a chance to hear what is happening a couple hours up I-95.

Nézet-Séguin brought half of a “Paris Festival” program for this one-off performance, with rather mainstream pieces by composers who were not French but who lived much of their lives in France.

The Canadian conductor had a surprise in store. The evening was to open with Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, but Nézet-Séguin announced that the orchestra would instead begin with a piece not listed in the program, D’un matin de printemps by Lili Boulanger. The composer’s sister, Nadia Boulanger, made waves by conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1939, and was known for championing the music of Lili, who died tragically young. 

As it invariably does, this little-known composer’s music made an impression, opening with lovely, percolating activity in the woodwinds. The main section, in a gentle triple meter, was contrasted by a gloomy middle section in lusher harmonies. A short but intensely pleasing work, it revealed its composer as a talented melodist able to manage a broad range of orchestral colors.

After another pause to put the piano in place, Nézet-Séguin led a sensitive rendition of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, which is sadly not the “short one” but the “long one.” The 20-year-old composer made it for himself to play, for a concert in Warsaw in 1830, and although he published it first, he actually composed it after his Second Piano Concerto. Canadian pianist Louis Lortie took all the rhythmic room he needed on the solo part, applying an expansive rubato to the tender themes of the first movement, supported well in sound and pacing by Nézet-Séguin and his musicians.

Lortie’s approach to the more pyrotechnical parts of this concerto, and they are considerable, was to go for level-headed clarity rather than virtuosic excess. This left much of the work’s fire to the orchestra, which dug into the long introduction of the first movement with vigor and revived the piece near the end of that long movement. 

The luscious Philadelphia strings opened the second movement, weaving a beautiful tapestry of sound for Lortie to decorate. All of this delicacy risked becoming soporific in this extended slow movement. Lortie had a firm hand on the technical challenges of the third movement, endless whirring runs and complex figuration with most of the diabolical whiff of sulfur removed.

The Philadelphia musicians had their chance to shine in Nézet-Séguin’s carefully parsed reading of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Sadly Nézet-Séguin chose to perform the 1947 revision of the ballet score, in which Stravinsky pruned down his extravagant use of woodwinds. Even so the score was dazzling, mined for its most unusual colors and given an incisive edge of articulation in the rapid dances without sacrificing the narrative to speed. The crowd scenes of the first and fourth tableaux were raucous, bursting with Stravinsky’s allusions to popular and folk songs and jagged with juxtaposed rhythms.

More impressive were the minor narrative details Nézet-Séguin emphasized, seemingly in relation to Fokine’s choreography for the original ballet. The contrabassoonist did not rush through those humorous eructations, for example, when the Magician appears, poking his head through the curtain of his stage. The flutist’s long unaccompanied solo, played by the Magician to draw the crowd’s attention to the puppets, was aptly enigmatic.

In concert conductors sometimes gloss over long parts of the score that go with pantomime, because they seem less diverting on the surface. Yet Nézet-Séguin explored all the dramatic possibilities, including hamming up the grotesque dissonant touches in the third tableau that go with the grimaces and gesticulations of the Moor as he seduces the Ballerina. In the final tableau the low strings gave exceptional weight to the music that goes with the appearance of the bear, which is baited and made to perform in a slow-motion sequence that can and should turn the stomach.

The next visiting orchestra presented by Washington Performing Arts will be the St. Petersburg Philharmonic 8 p.m.February 27. washingtonperformingarts.org

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