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Philadelphia Orchestra's Fabulous 'Firebird' at Strathmore

available at Amazon
Rachmaninoff, Variations, D. Trifonov, Philadelphia Orchestra, Y. Nézet-Séguin
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2015)

available at Amazon
Vieuxtemps, Violin Concerto No. 4, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, P. Järvi
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2015)
Perhaps it was the news that just hours before Monday evening’s concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Strathmore -- presented by Washington Performing Arts -- the ensemble, its music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Daniil Trifonov had been nominated for a Grammy for best classical solo performance. (Actually, it was just one of two Grammy nods for Nézet-Séguin and Trifonov.) Or maybe it was the thrill of performing to a sold-out house on the road. Either way, the Philadelphians and Nézet-Séguin leapt into an energetic rendition of Georges Bizet’s Suite No. 1 from Carmen (arr. Hoffman), the conductor gesticulating wildly on the podium, the players providing lots of volume and music flying by, ending with the Toreadors moving so quickly they’d have had little trouble outrunning their bulls. Yet even at that speed the orchestra, particularly its famed string sections, moved as one marvelous, precise instrument. This aspect of Nézet-Séguin’s group would return repeatedly during a night that featured much more satisfying interpretations than the bustling Bizet.

Next, all eyes turned to violin soloist Hillary Hahn. By the end of the four-movement Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, op. 31, of Henri Vieuxtemps, a contemporary of Bizet, it was clear that Hahn remains a virtuoso performer and Nézet-Séguin’s reputation as an excellent collaborator is warranted. Less clear, though, is why the Vieuxtemps, written in 1849-50, isn’t better known. The concerto, which Berlioz called “a magnificent symphony with principal violin,” contains large orchestral passages without soloist and extended room for the soloist to shine unaccompanied. Its Scherzo is a playful vivace that Hahn and Nézet-Séguin clearly enjoyed, and the Finale marziale is similarly spirited. While there were a few rough patches for the orchestra, Hahn’s technique and tone were flawless throughout. Best, of course, was the sense that soloist, orchestra and conductor were completely in synch interpretively.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Philadelphians reliably glorious in all-too-reliable repertory (Washington Post, December 8)

David Rohde, The Philadelphia Orchestra Presented by Washington Performing Arts at Strathmore (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, December 9)

David Patrick Stearns, Philly Orchestra features Hilary Hahn and a lavish 'Firebird' (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 5)

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With the bouncy Bizet and the more sensitively read Vieuxtemps as evidence, it was unclear where Nézet-Séguin would go with Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Fortunately, from the bass section’s subdued and ominous playing of the opening bars it was clear that Nézet-Séguin wanted a completely different effect. His Firebird was a revelation, not least because he eschewed the smaller concert suites usually heard in concert halls in favor of performing the complete work.

It is said that to create a great performance one must know how to end a piece before beginning it. Barely moving on the podium until the very end of the piece, Nézet-Séguin seemed to have every note mapped out. His overall directive to his troops was control, allowing the famous Philadelphia silky smooth string sound to permeate, creating a mysterious atmosphere that was augmented with bursts of brass and the muted horn of principal hornist Jennifer Montone. While the score’s famous final bars had plenty of sound and power, they seemed more so due to the tastefully subdued playing throughout. In their best moments, Hahn and Nézet-Séguin provided celebrity music-making at its finest.

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