Entertainment » Music

Philadelphia Orchestra Makes Joyous Music with Reimagined Performance

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Oct 30, 2020
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center  (Source:Philadelphia Orchestra)

For audiences used to seeing Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra on stage, to watch them on a 'Digital Stage' made for a completely different experience. But it was simply a joy to watch the musicians perform together in the first concerts of this re-imagined fall season after a six-month shutdown. (Nézet-Séguin other duties as musical director/conductor of NYC's Metropolitan Opera are currently on hold since the company will remain closed until next September.)

Like all performing arts organizations, the loss of revenue of canceled live orchestra performances this year has been devastating to the industry. But, unlike others, the Philadelphia Orchestra has come up with a strategy to continue to perform with the musicians onstage at the outdoor Mann Center wearing masks and separated by Plexiglas partitions. Nézet-Séguin also programmed works for a much-reduced sized orchestra, which allowed for social distancing of the musicians. There was no audience, instead, the orchestra streamed the concerts with reasonably priced viewing options.

The October 22 concert opened with "Prayer" by California-based composer Vivian Fung (a premiere by the orchestra), and was followed by two more familiar works: Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring Suite" and Richard Wagner's "Siegfried Idyll."

"Prayer" showed Fung's dynamic symphonic imagination that she had previously exhibited when the Philadelphia premiered her "Dirt Devils Symphony" a few seasons ago. The Canadian-born composer had premiered the work earlier this year with 30 Canadian musicians under Nézet-Séguin's direction.

In a short interview with the composer before the concert, Fung explained that she composed the piece in the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown hit. The impetus was a musical reflection in troubled times. "I turned to one of my heroines of an earlier time Hildegard von Bingen for inspiration and I found one of her chants." (Bingen was an 11th- century choral composer, abbess and scholar.) "Certainly, this is the most overtly emotional piece that I've ever written."

All of those emotions were distilled into a dynamic orchestral, accumulating sound fields long vibrating flute lines, oboe spirals, sonorous string clusters and rumbling timpani, accumulating instrumentation that echoed back to Gregorian chant. The Philadelphia Orchestra ignited all of Fung's musical mysticism in this performance.

What might be surprising was that this performance of Copland's "Appalachian Spring Suite" marks the premiere of the original version of the ballet score with the orchestra, which was scored for 13 musicians and featured Copland's inventive inclusion of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts." Among the outstanding soloists in this rendition were Ricardo Morales (clarinet), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), Jeffrey Khaner (flute), pianist Kiyoko Takeuti, and 1st & 2nd chair violinists David Kim and Kimberly Fisher.

Richard Wagner wrote a "Siegfried Idyll" as a gift for his wife Cosima upon the birth of their child drawing on themes from his opera "Siegfried" for just a handful of musicians. Heard today it was a slow-moving, cloyingly romantic warhorse that lumbered along for contemporary audiences. For his part, Nézet-Séguin leaned into its core serenity and all of the solo lines were flawless, especially the luminous French horn passages from principal Jennifer Montone.

For the orchestra, the virtual broadcasts are also an opportunity to connect an opportunity to reach out to more diverse audiences as larger audiences for music lovers who aren't regular classical concert goers. The Philadelphia Orchestra is among the best in the world and in this time of corrosive media noise, they provide a sanctuary of music.

For information about The Philadelphia Orchestra's online 2020 fall concert season go to www.philorch.org

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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