Last night, the Philadelphia Orchestra played in its home-away-from-home, Carnegie Hall. On the podium was Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the orchestra, who, starting next fall, will also be the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Those are two of the most important posts in all of music. Think of it.
Beginning last night’s concert was a concerto, a violin concerto, written by Michel van der Aa in 2014. Van der Aa is a Dutchman, as his name tells you, and he wrote his concerto for another Dutchman, Janine Jansen, who was the soloist last night. I will write about the concerto in my next “chronicle” for the magazine.
Van der Aa’s work was the only piece on the first half. And on the second? It, too, had one work, a symphony by Rachmaninoff: his Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27.
Recently, I wrote something about Jaap van Zweden (lot of Dutchmen about!). It went like this, approximately: “Whenever he conducts a concert of the New York Philharmonic, it takes on special importance, because Van Zweden will be the music director of the Philharmonic, and you want to know what you’re getting.” Something similar applies to Nézet-Séguin—although, by this time, he is a familiar commodity in New York. He has conducted at Carnegie Hall and at the Met repeatedly.
I’ll tell you what I heard last night, in the Rachmaninoff.
The opening Largo was ponderous. Also, the music was overmanaged. Too tightly controlled. To add insult to injury, the orchestra was somewhat sloppy, especially in its entrances. But on the plus side? The sound, whether the legendary “Philadelphia Sound” or not. A combination of that orchestra and Carnegie Hall is luxurious.
But back to the minus side: As the first movement unfolded, the conductor executed ritards and hesitations, and these struck me as contrived. Unnatural. The music didn’t breathe properly, and the conducting—the managing—was all too noticeable.
The next movement, however, had its right verve and shape. So, on to the Adagio, beloved of the world. This music made a hit for Eric Carmen in 1976. (“Carmen” is a good name for a musician, by the way.) He sang a song called “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” using Rachmaninoff’s melody.
The clarinet has a big part in this movement. I was greatly looking forward to hearing Ricardo Morales, the Philadelphia’s principal. He is one of the finest players going. When the clarinet solo started, I wondered whether he was absent. It did not sound like him. Later, when the players were called on for bows, Morales stood up. So it was indeed he. Huh.
I was also surprised at the oboe, who did not sing out. The flute, however, was thoroughly satisfying. Rachmaninoff, perhaps under the influence of his older countryman, Tchaikovsky, gives the woodwinds a lot to do.
And the conducting? I could never forget it. The music was managed all the way, suffering from stiltedness. I felt the same when Nézet-Séguin conducted Parsifal, the Wagner opera, recently at the Met. In Carnegie Hall last night, thinking of Nézet-Séguin’s impending music directorship, I thought, “If this keeps up, it’s gonna be a long forty years.”
Between the third and fourth movements, Nézet-Séguin took an ample pause. He had done so between the first and second movements, too—and I sort of laughed at myself. I think the second movement should begin fairly quickly after the first, and that the fourth should begin fairly quickly after the third. Is that because I grew up with LPs and CDs, with their particular spacing between tracks?
There was a lot to like in the finale last night. Verve, yes, and sound—marvelous sound. Pizzicatos were poor, however. And then there was the last section, the last stretch.
It features one of the great build-ups in all of music. The build-up to the climax is so suspenseful, so masterly, it is almost unbearable. And then when the dam bursts, it is a huge, glorious relief. You feel like you’ve been through an exhilarating war, non-lethal.
Last night, there was none of that, to my mind. The build-up was no build-up, and the climax was no climax.
I will conclude this unpleasant post with a pleasant story. Before the symphony, I saw a friend of mine, who works in the music business. Her husband works in the business, too—he wasn’t there. She loves Rachmaninoff—especially the Second Symphony—and he does not, emphatically. When they were dating, she told me, it was almost a deal-breaker.
I’m glad there were other considerations. Where do I stand, by the way? Well, I think that the Rachmaninoff Second is not only one of the best Romantic symphonies but also one of the best symphonies. [Smiley emoji.]