At Kennedy Center, Philadelphia Orchestra’s new leader turns up the volume


Yannick Nezet-Seguin of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Marco Borggreve)

The Philadelphia Orchestra finally made it to Washington this season on Wednesday night, but some Washington Performing Arts Society patrons were already upset about next year, when the orchestra’s Kennedy Center visit, usually an eagerly anticipated annual event, is missing from the WPAS calendar.

For its part, the orchestra is happy to live in the present. Having emerged last year from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it is celebrating its new music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, a veritable poster boy for the new face of classical music: young, engaged, affable, talented. And to judge from the way he played Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, very, very loud.

Nezet-Seguin technically succeeded Christoph Eschenbach, although the Philadelphians were led for an interim period after Eschenbach’s precipitous 2008 departure by the underrated Charles Dutoit. And to my ear, there were certain evocations of Eschenbach, but that may partly be because I heard Eschenbach lead another long, loud, episodic version of the Seventh with the National Symphony Orchestra earlier this season.

Nezet-Seguin is not like Eschenbach in a technical sense: He’s brisker and crisper in his approach, though not always as precise as he might be. The yin-and-yang Austrian program counterbalanced the Bruckner (not unusually) with Erich Korngold’s violin concerto: a later and more self-consciously polished example of large-scale Romantic music. These qualities were underlined by the sound and manner of the soloist, Hilary Hahn, whose appearance and playing perfectly matched, not for the first time. In a glittering metallic gown and bob that evoked Carey Mulligan in “The Great Gatsby,” playing brilliantly, she found a line of taut muscle beneath the layers of sheerly gorgeous sound that Nezet-Seguin and the orchestra were carefully shaping around her.

To say Korngold’s music sounds like film music is simply a fact: Working in Hollywood after the Nazi regime interrupted his European career, he helped shape the way film music sounds. This concerto, written in 1946, is filled with the caressing melodies and dramatically telegraphed effects, and even the motifs, of some of his film scores. The poignancy lies in the fact that it is already, by 1946, a bit anachronistic. Richard Strauss’s postwar pieces are steeped in nostalgia, looking back at a past when this kind of music was relevant; Korngold, by contrast, seems brightly determined not to notice that he is living in a different world. Nezet-Seguin and the orchestra (sounding ravishing) sculpted each line to a Technicolor opulence.

The similarity to Eschenbach lay in Nezet-Seguin’s emotionalism, and it came out in the Bruckner, which seemed like a whole lot of symphony for the conductor to handle. The Seventh is Bruckner’s most popular symphony, filled with the gentle, clumsy grace peculiar to this peculiar composer, and Nezet-Seguin, like Eschenbach, approached it with so much love and reverence that some moments — like the opening cellos — made tears spring to your eyes. I liked the way he lingered over the composer’s quirks, playing up piercing dissonances to amplify the sense of release when they yielded to, for instance, the famously beautiful sepia-toned theme in the second movement.

But as the piece went on, that lingering seemed more and more to drag it out. And Nezet-Seguin tended to build each movement to the same kind of towering, crashing climax, digging into fortissimos until the balconies rang out, but in the process steamrolling over the distinct traits of each movement, so that the Scherzo, usually lively and rough-hewn, and the Adagio, usually melting, ended up sounding emotionally similar. However vivid the individual moments, they became numbing in the aggregate. Many in the audience, however, responded enthusiastically to what was certainly a committed performance from a talented conductor and a great orchestra.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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