Last night was opening night at Carnegie Hall, which is always nice, but which had extra meaning this year, because the hall had been dark for so long—572 days, an official noted before the concert began.
That concert was played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. As the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, too, Nézet-Séguin had opened the Met season about a week and a half before. The Philadelphia Orchestra is the home orchestra of Carnegie Hall, more or less. Nézet-Séguin is no doubt New York’s maestro, ubiquitous. Has there been a greater conductorial presence here since Leonard Bernstein?
Nézet-Séguin is far more present than the New York Philharmonic’s maestro, Jaap van Zweden—who in any case is leaving soon. Jaap is in Yannick’s shadow. Is this musically just? In any event, it is so.
Last night’s program included Bernstein (speaking of him), Shostakovich, and Beethoven. It also included two contemporary composers: Valerie Coleman and Iman Habibi. In a speech to the audience, Nézet-Séguin called them “two geniuses of our time.” That is a remarkable statement.
The concert began with Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout, which recalls a practice from early in the pandemic: at 7 p.m., people would lean out their windows and make all sorts of noise, in tribute to the frontline workers. According to Carnegie Hall’s program notes, Coleman’s piece is “a breathtaking pastoral tone poem in the tradition of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.”
I found it a thoughtful and clever piece, combining the beautiful, the folkloric, and the raucous. Also, it is the right length, not overstaying its welcome. I often quote Earl Wild: “Music ought to say what it has to say, then get off the stage.”
The concert continued with a Shostakovich piano concerto—No. 2. In June, I wrote about this piece, in a post headed “Shostakovich with a smile.” The occasion was a performance, livestreamed, by Yuja Wang, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. Wang was the soloist last night, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians.
The first movement was a mess. It ought to be precise, jaunty, and delightful. It was just a mess—rushed, out of coordination, and not even competent. The middle movement (Andante) went far better. Wang gave us some melting lyricism. I was afraid that the last movement would be a repeat of the first—but it was competent.
Next on the bill was Bernstein’s Candide overture. It was smartly zippy. Toward the end, however, I think there ought to be some sass, or some flirtation. At least a hint of it. This was absent. Also, there is a build-up, which ought to begin soft and have some suspense. These things were absent too, at least in my judgment. Nevertheless, the conductor and orchestra were virtuosic.
At this point, Nézet-Séguin took a microphone and gave his speech to the audience. He said that the arts had the power to change the world. He said that music needed to represent more “communities” (if I heard him correctly). It was still okay to play Beethoven, he said. “Beethoven is still relevant.” That was a huge relief. But music needed to change, he said.
Iman Habibi has written a short piece called Jeder Baum spricht (“Every Tree Speaks”). I will quote Carnegie Hall’s program notes:
Although Beethoven’s own perspective was that of Romanticism, in modern terms he might be described as an environmentalist. With this in mind, Habibi wondered how Beethoven would respond to 21st-century climate change. He describes Jeder Baum spricht as “an unsettling rhapsodic reflection on the climate catastrophe, written in dialogue with Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies.”
Maestro Nézet-Séguin, in his remarks to the audience, had spoken of Beethoven’s “worship of nature.” Did Beethoven worship nature? Or appreciate it? We might have this discussion another time. At any rate, Iman Habibi has written an interesting and intelligent piece. You would know that the composer had climate change in mind only if he had told you (which he has). So it is with all such music, without words.
Nézet-Séguin did not pause at the end of the piece—he went right into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As though the two went together. He yoked them. I’m not sure this was fair to Beethoven, who has written his own piece. But Nézet-Séguin was making a point of some kind.
Are point-making and music in harmony? We could have these discussions all day, and all night.
In Nézet-Séguin’s hands, Beethoven’s first movement was fast and peppy. To me, it lacked some of its grandeur, majesty, and gravitas. But these are debatable matters. Amid the fastness and peppiness, the oboe solo has never been slower or freer. I thought that was interesting (and welcome). The second movement, too, was fast, and I would have appreciated a touch more beauty and savoring. But this movement was reasonable.
The Scherzo? It was very well carved—impressive. And Nézet-Séguin handled the transition to the Finale deftly. I worried that this Finale would be raced through. But it had enough of its triumphant and hymn-like quality.
Maybe I could end on a footnote. I happened to sit in seat V2. A German journalist sat next to me, and we made a joke about Wernher von Braun. You know the Tom Lehrer song, don’t you? Here.