I arrived at Strathmore on Monday feeling a little fed up with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Of course, it is one of the jewels of the symphonic world, and its performances in Washington, courtesy of Washington Performing Arts, are always pretty wonderful. But it has taken to coming here with repertoire chestnuts, worn smooth with familiarity, which is frustrating given the wealth of orchestral music to choose from.
And Monday’s selection seemed so familiar as to be downright avoidable. The program included a suite from Bizet’s “Carmen” (oh, please, not “Carmen” again) and Stravinsky’s entire “Firebird” ballet. I was curious to hear Hilary Hahn play Vieuxtemps’s Fourth Violin Concerto, a large-scale but lightweight confection that has been close to her heart for most of her life, but unlike some of Hahn’s more pioneering explorations, it — like the rest of this program — represents lush symphonic tradition.
Then Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra’s music director, took the podium and gave the downbeat. And the music began — played with such vividness, such conviction of its value and, more importantly, its fun, that all my resistance vanished. I enjoyed every drop of the “Carmen” suite’s glorious, know-it-by-heart music, taken at a rapid tempo that emphasized its fundamental vitality. You want to win over new audiences, orchestra world? Play “Carmen” like that.
What most excites me about classical music is the sense of a tactile sound: sinking into the landscape of a piece that has contours and textures and a riot of colors. Nézet-Séguin has this all at his disposal with this wonderful orchestra, and knows how to bring it out: thick, chewy horn lines; the opulence of the solo cello; or slashes of string and percussion in “Firebird Suite” that seared across the ear.
As for Hahn, it is always refreshing to see this most down-to-earth of stars in flashy, showy repertoire, which she offers with the same willing straightforwardness and superb ability that she brings to everything else she plays. She sometimes seems to match her outfit to her repertoire, but Monday’s tiara, glittering earrings and waistband did nothing to dispel her image as classical music’s girl next door: Hahn is too solidly and sensibly herself to be much changed by fame or seduced into posturing by mere repertory choices. She played the Vieuxtemps concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 1998; she has recorded it this year; and she played it on Monday with a wonderful muscularity, digging into the first-movement cadenza, elevating the sweet second movement (Adagio religioso) beyond saccharine, leaping up to laser-clear high notes in an ascending run in the fourth movement that is appended onto the concerto like an extra limb. Then, called back to the stage numerous times by the applause, she played some Bach as an encore to offset the glitter — or enhance it.
Nézet-Séguin, meanwhile, showed definitively that he has earned his reputation as the darling of the classical music world, not just because he is a young, hip leader into the future but because he truly knows how to bring music to life. The “Firebird” was played masterfully and dramatically; I’m not sure I’ve heard it done better. I still wish that I had gotten to hear this great orchestra in other music — which is a refrain I seem often to intone after many wonderful Philadelphia Orchestra concerts. But if sitting through music I don’t really want to hear is the price I have to pay to hear such fine performances, I am willing, it turns out, to do it.
Washington Performing Arts will present Hahn in recital in April, playing, among other things, a new set of solo violin works commissioned for her.