Review: Without a note of Beethoven, an orchestra shines

The vast majority of the music the Philadelphia Orchestra plays in its eight concerts at Carnegie Hall this season is by Beethoven.

Under the musical direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this ensemble plays the master with warmth and verve. And alongside the nine classic symphonies, it features contemporary works written in response, a time-tested technique for slipping into the new with the old sugar spoonful style. They were worthy performances.

But even if three of the concerts are still to come – Beethoven’s first and ninth on February 21, then his “Missa Solemnis” and a John Williams gala in April – I think nothing the Philadelphians will do at Carnegie this season will be more impressive than Tuesday’s performance.

There was not a note from Beethoven. Nor, for that matter, any piece that could be considered a standard coin toss. The closest thing to a chestnut, Samuel Barber’s 1947 soprano monologue “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” flourished in the fresh company of two new works and Florence Price’s once-forgotten Symphony No. .

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra established the Prize in 1933, it was the first work by a black woman to be performed by a major orchestra. While women and composers of color are now better represented in the programs, it is still too rare for them (or for anything other than a canonical piece) to occupy the anchor position at the end of a concert.

So it was a progressive, even inspiring statement for Philadelphia — which released a recording of Price’s First and Third Symphonies last year — to end with the premiere. And the musicians gave it the same vitality and the same subtlety that they gave to Beethoven.

The first bassoon line here was less of a solo centerpiece and more of a soft song tucked modestly into the textures of the strings. In this bassoon call – with the mixture of folk-style melodies and classical sweep, and a danceable finale – Price’s symphony bears the unmistakable influence of Dvorak’s “New World”. But it’s very much its own piece, with a startling hesitation between raging force and abrupt lyrical oases in the first movement and a whistle of the wind echoing through Juba’s vibrant dance in the third.

Price clearly knew she had a good melody in the slow second movement, a hymn-like refrain for brass chorale which she exploits to the full. But the many rehearsals, with delicate African drums below, take on the dazzling dignity of prayer. And the end, with a rapid calligraphy in the winds winding around the theme, rises to ecstasy, punctuated by the bells.

Lush but focused and engaged in sound, Nézet-Séguin’s orchestra even highlights a quality that I hadn’t particularly associated with Price: humor, in its dances and in the way a clarinet suddenly emerges from this hymn. slow, like laughter in church.

The concert opened with a new suite by Matthew Aucoin adapted from his opera “Eurydice”, performed at the Metropolitan Opera last fall. At the Met, Aucoin’s score overwhelmed a seductive story, but in an 18-minute instrumental summary it was easier to appreciate the dense, boisterous extravagance of his music, the way he whisks an orchestra from the mists to the oceans, then has pounding percussion chasing him at a gallop. Ricardo Morales, the Philadelphians’ lead clarinet, played his mournful solo with a light, bright tone, an otherworldly letter.

There was also grandeur in Valerie Coleman’s “It’s Not a Small Voice,” her re-enactment of a poetic anthem to Sonia Sanchez’s black pride that veers from brooding to bold statement. Soprano Angel Blue was lively, her tone as rich but light as whipped cream, in a challenging solo part, which demands crisp, singing articulation and dips into velvety depths before rising to shimmering high notes. The blue was also superb – soft and soft, but still vivid – in the nostalgic Barber.

In its inspired alignment of old and new, the concert recalled last week’s program at the New York Philharmonic, which also closed with a rediscovered symphony by a black composer. When it comes to expanding the sounds that resonate in our opera houses and concert halls, change can be painfully slow. But hearing, in a matter of days, two of the country’s most venerable orchestras playing symphonies by Julius Eastman and Florence Price was like seeing the tectonic plates of the repertoire shift in real time.

Philadelphia Orchestra

Next appears at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan on February 21.

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