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Philadelphia Orchestra Breathes as One

We welcome this review from first-time contributor Michael De Sapio.

The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin (pictured), appeared at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night in a program of surefire romantic favorites -- Edvard Grieg's A minor piano concerto and Sergei Rachmaninoff's second symphony -- presented by Washington Performing Arts. The soloist in the Grieg was pianist Jan Lisiecki, who plays with a maturity and decisiveness that belie his mere twenty years. Lisiecki got the concerto off to an electrifying start with a thundering volley of octaves, yet his performance as a whole was notable for its intelligence and reflection. Grieg treats piano and orchestra as partners in this well-proportioned concerto, the piano more often than not emerging naturally out of the orchestral sound-picture; appropriately, Lisiecki played the role of a partner rather than a prima donna. He and the orchestra created moments of still, contemplative beauty in the second movement and the slow section of the finale. After a well-deserved standing ovation, Lisiecki offered an encore of a Chopin prelude (op. 28/15, the “Raindrop”).

Right from the opening bars of the Grieg, one had a palpable sense of ease and trust between the Philadelphians and their dynamic young conductor, who has been leading the orchestra since 2012 (including helping to lead it out of its financial troubles). Nézet-Séguin didn't so much conduct the music as coax it effortlessly out of the orchestra; the music-making had an organic flow. The expressive intention was so unanimous across the orchestra that regular eye contact with Nézet-Séguin was hardly necessary; conductor and orchestra simply breathed as one. Everything flowed naturally from the famed “Philadelphia sound,” a rich fullness of blend crowned by plush strings.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Philly beguiles with symphonic power (Washington Post, April 9)

---, Yannick, unique: Philadelphia Orchestra hopes it’s found its savior (Washington Post, April 2)

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In fact the ensemble's performance was so impeccable that by the time the Rachmaninoff rolled around I realized there was no point picking it apart, so instead I focused on the work itself. A conductor once told me that Rachmaninoff thought of himself as a contrapuntal composer. Accustomed as we are to thinking of him as the composer of gushing tunes and luscious harmonies, this comes as a surprise. It made sense, though, when you listened to the introductory Largo of the symphony, with its winding string lines intertwining in an orchestral frieze of almost Bach-like intensity.

Was Rachmaninoff really a nostalgic Romantic who completely rejected modern sounds? That he was a lush Romantic there is no doubt; if you want gushing melodies, the third-movement Adagio offered a veritable waterfall. Yet the symphony also had moments with a starkness, brusqueness, and rhythmic energy which seemed modern in spirit. It seems only a small step from Rachmaninoff's sinister second-movement scherzo to the scherzos of Shostakovich. Washington audiences are very generous with their standing ovations, but the thunderous one that greeted the last note of the Rachmaninoff was well merited. No matter how well-worn these pieces, they are always welcome with playing of this caliber.

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