JT's Blog

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

Umoja

Just back from a typically wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra concert conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Yannick and Hélène Grimaud taking bows after the concerto

Yannick seems to have bleached his hair. I didn’t subscribe last season and the only concert I attended was not conducted by him, so I’m not sure if this is a new look for Yannick, but I suspect it is. He wore a white, loose fitting top, tailored, no doubt, to conceal his no-longer especially trim physique. The “Mighty Mouse” nickname conferred upon him when he arrived in this city is no longer apropos, a casualty presumably of his heavy work schedule at both the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

He conducted today with a baton, which surprised me, because I saw a video of a concert he did (and an interview) last season with the Berlin Philharmonic where he was batonless and seemed to revel in the freedom it gave him. In any case, during the final movement of the Dvořák “New World” Symphony today, the baton flew out of his hand and rolled off the stage, whereupon an audience member in the front row scooped it up and handed it back to him. During the curtain calls, Yannick graciously made a present of the baton to that man.

Yannick shaking hands with principal players after the Dvořák

The orchestra sounded as great as ever today. In my new location in the Second Tier just to the left of the stage, I got to hear the basses and cellos more clearly. The percussion comes through loud and clear in that location as well. The Philadelphia’s brass section has never sounded better, and they still use five horns where four are scored.

Hélène Grimaud was the piano soloist in the Bartók Third Piano Concerto.Her playing was impeccable, but the less said about the Bartók piece the better. My opinion of his music hasn’t changed since I last wrote about it.

But I wanted to highlight the first piece, the World Premiere of Valerie Coleman’s new orchestration of Umoja, Anthem for Unity. It’s based on a simple song originally arranged for women’s choir and later rearranged into a woodwind quintet.

From the program notes:

Umoja means “unity” in Swahili. It is the first principle of the African Diaspora holiday Kwanzaa and represents family, community, and harmonious living captured in the African proverb “I AM because WE ARE.” Coleman reflects, “The work embodies a sense of ‘tribal unity’ through the feel of a drum circle, the sharing of history through traditional ‘call and response’ form, and the repetition of a memorable sing-song melody.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned her to rewrite it for orchestra, and I’m glad they did. It’s a beautiful piece of music, about ten minutes long, with a soulful melody at its base, exuberant rhythms, and strong contrasts. I hope it goes on to be played elsewhere and becomes an orchestral mainstay.