JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Yannick, the Orchestra, and Strauss

Just back from this afternoon's Philadelphia Orchestra concert, and I'm exhausted. In a good way. But before I talk about today's performance, I want to go back and catch up on some of the earlier highlights of the season so far.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin began the season with a powerful performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony in September 2013, which also kick-started a two season traversal of all the Beethoven symphonies. The performance was rhythmically intense and emphasized the revolutionary aspects of the symphony; Yannick really brought out the drama in the work and made it seem fresh once more. I particularly recall the pounding tympani in the scherzo.

The orchestra is celebrating the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss this season, which suits me fine, as Strauss is probably my third favorite composer (right behind Wagner and Beethoven). So in October Richard Woodhams was the featured soloist in the Strauss Oboe Concerto.

A brief digression on Richard Woodhams: he is a force of nature. The orchestra's principal oboe since 1977, Woodhams has carried on and extended the tradition of John de Lancie, his predecessor and teacher. Frequently appearing as soloist not only with the Philadelphians but also with other leading orchestras across the country, he distinguishes himself with every beautifully crafted oboe line he plays. The city is fortunate to have him.

Richard Woodhams, principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra

The Strauss Oboe Concerto is one of those pieces that has slowly grown on me. A product of Strauss's so-called Indian Summer period, the concerto initially seemed pleasant but relatively light-weight. Lately, however, I've developed a new respect for the piece. Needless to say, Woodhams played it beautifully, seemingly oblivious of its challenges. The challenges begin with a 56 measure passage for the soloist, giving no opportunity for the player to take a breath, and they go on from there. Woodhams even played the passages that are doubled by other instruments, which according to Norman Del Mar many distinguished soloists skip in order to take a well-earned breath. As I said, Richard Woodhams is a force of nature.

That particular concert also featured a wonderful reading of the Mahler 4th Symphony by Yannick. I've often said that the 4th is my least favorite Mahler symphony, but after hearing this performance, I might have to change that assessment: Yannick brought out all the 20th century aspects of the piece and made it sound more modern than I've ever heard it played before.

In November Yannick led the orchestra in an exhilarating performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, which I have long considered one of Strauss's lesser tone poems; it has always seemed episodic with the parts never adding up to a whole. I don't know if it was hearing it live, or if it was Concertmaster David Kim's playing of the solo violin part, or if it was the way Yannick approached the piece–but whatever it was, I found the performance thrilling and even moving. At the climax of the battle scene, when Strauss combines the themes of the Hero and his Companion, I felt tears welling up in my eyes as well as goose bumps running up and down my back.

In the final section of the tone poem Strauss adds an allusion to the final movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which brings me to today's concert.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Once again a Strauss Indian Summer work led off–this time his Metamorphosen, one of my favorites. Metamorphosen is Strauss's cry of despair over the destruction of several of his beloved cities at the end of World War II, and its motto theme is derived from the Funeral March of Beethoven's Eroica. Yannick led 23 solo strings of the orchestra in a lovingly played performance, bringing out dramatic aspects of the work that I didn't realize were there. (I do have one question: when a work like this is performed, how are the players chosen? Just wondering…)

Shostakovich's first Cello Concerto followed with Johannes Moser substituting for an ailing Truls Mørk on the cello. I'm at a loss for superlatives; when the orchestra can tap a substitute as brilliant and talented as Moser for a very difficult 20th century concerto, we listeners are fortunate indeed.

The concert concluded with Yannick's account of the Eroica itself. I'm going to repeat myself, but the performance was rhythmically intense. When Yannick barely waited for the entrance applause to die down before barreling into the two incisive opening chords, I knew we were in for a very special treat. He took the opening movement at a fast clip, emphasizing once again the revolutionary aspects of the work, and giving himself room to slow down when the music warranted it. The Funeral March with its multiple climaxes brought chills, and the scherzo was properly playful. The orchestra members, who surely could play this work in their sleep, sounded like one enormous instrument that Yannick was putting through its paces. The final movement brought a fitting end to a remarkable performance.

But don't think for a moment that I came to praise Yannick unconditionally. In the first movement he skipped the repeat of the exposition, which seriously threw off the balance with the enormous development section. <sigh>

Anyway, as the Strauss celebration continues, I'm eagerly looking forward to hearing the performance of Salome this spring.