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Saturday, January 8, 2011

and the Philadelphia Enquirer's take . . .

Coming into view slowly before becoming music director in 2012, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is only starting to fill out a public profile, and what the public thinks of him inevitably hinges on what expectations one harbors of an orchestra leader in this unfortunate trough of institutional ambition.

If, for instance, you feel the group's way out of financial and organizational chaos is to connect a podium personality and a community, then Thursday06 night's guest appearance by Nézet-Séguin was a tidy triumph. He presided over the Mozart/Süssmayr Requiem - a crossover work as surely as is Orff's Carmina Burana – which by its very presence guaranteed to bring the house down. It did.

If, however, you desperately want this orchestra to flourish, but cling to a philosophy that the Philadelphia Orchestra is a great ensemble deserving musical leadership of suave technique, an ear for sound-cultivation and strong personal interpretive statements, you probably left Verizon Hall feeling underwhelmed.

Nézet-Séguin quite often falls short of highly developed ideas. He likes to get through a lot of music quickly, which, in parts of the Requiem, meant leaving aside the possibility for close detailing. Sweep is important to him. Momentary gusts of emotion billow up.

He does like pretty textures, which was an aspect of the Debussy Nocturnes not to be undervalued. The third movement, “Sirens,” wasn’t a place for wallowing or mystery, but, with 30 women from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, became fluid and alluring. Making the fanfares of “Festivals,” the electric second movement, more legato than usual was a nice idea, but it muddled the rhythms.

Transitions between sections were sometimes bereft of clear direction, as if the conductor were already thinking about the music ahead before the current phrase had played out all its string.

Mozart’s Requiem (finished by Süssmayr and presented here in the Franz Beyer edition of the 1970s) is perhaps the most breathlessly myth-gathering piece in the standard repertoire, and yet it hasn’t made a Philadelphia Orchestra appearance in two decades (other local groups have done it often enough).

The last performances, led by Muti in 1991, featured Arleen Auger, Susanne Mentzer, Jozef Kundlak and Simon Estes. No such starry names join the current performances, and no huge personalities. But in many ways, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Birgit Remmert, tenor James Taylor and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams were ideal. There was something shared in their vocal qualities – a limpid, uncluttered sound with vibratos turned way down. Each one at various points achieved a very high level of blending with an instrumental sonority in the ensemble. Crowe was astonishing, aglow with a honey-colored purity of penetrating presence without extreme volume.

The 100-plus Philadelphia Singers Chorale, prepared by David Hayes, was expert – always producing a focused, homogenous sound, always in easily discernable diction (a few starting consonants arrived roughed up a bit). Organist Michael Stairs was a sensitively girding presence throughout. The smallish orchestra – the score omits oboes, flutes and horns – was admirably responsive. You have to believe that by the next performance the usually solid trombonist Eric Carlson will have worked through the shakes in the famous solo of the “Tuba mirum.”

Nézet-Séguin chooses an intriguing ending mood – rather than angry, it is quietly resigned, almost a final resolution for a piece that has lived in the restive imagination of its admirers long enough.

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