IN THE LAST WEEK OF JANUARY, JON JACOB EMBARKS ON A THOROUGHLY GOOD EXPEDITION TO NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES, ATTENDING CONCERTS GIVEN BY FIVE LEADING AMERICAN ORCHESTRAS.
Stravinsky Petrushka (1910-11 rev.1947)
Weill Symphony No. 2 (1933-34)
Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conductor
Marcus Roberts Trio including Marcus Roberts, Martin Jaffe, and Jason Marsalis
For those of us from the UK more accustomed to perfunctory applause, the enthusiastic response from the audience welcomed conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin to the stage ahead of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka came as a bit of a surprise. The sound of the applause crinkled in the acoustics in a way I don’t remember hearing at the Cleveland concert. The capacity crowd was already psyched. Uplifting stuff before a single note was heard.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound is incredible, generated by a powerful, carefully controlled machine that delivers both weight and delicacy. The band feels incredibly responsive, meaning the smallest of gestures can bring about a range of different colours, and textures that illicit all manner of emotional responses. This receptiveness demands players at the top of their game. They are the elite.
There’s also a perceptible self-assurance in the sounds they produce. That promotes a sense of confidence in the listener, in turn elevating listening experience. Put simply if the first sounds you hear aren’t like anything you’ve heard before you’re going to listen more attentively, in the same way you’ll drive an expensive BMW differently simply because of the feel of the steering wheel and the smoothness of the ride.
In Petrushka the principal flute had a bright sweet sound, flanked by a delicate and precise piccolo. There were beautifully burbling and babbling clarinets. Trumpets sparkled with rapid articulation that was clear but avoided fussy-ness. A virtuosic piano line highlights that the material was originally conceived as a concert piece for piano – the demands Stravinsky makes on the pianist remain high and it’s a dazzling contribution from pianist Kiyoko Takeuti.
Elsewhere, the big string section brings phenomenal weight given the heft (no great surprises perhaps – 17 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses). When the basses underpinned a sequence, it felt as though we were digging down into the foundations, great jabs slicing into the ground with a sharp-edged spade.
The Weill second symphony opened the second half. A smaller number of players on stage but still the same detail, responsiveness and jaw-dropping spirit that elevates this band above so many others. At three movements it is a concise work, packed full of evocative tunes, inventive treatments, and tantalising textures. It undoubtedly entertains but does it move? I’m not entirely convinced, although age has mellowed me, so my conclusions are not as severe as those reported by Weill to a friend after the 1934 premiere who said the work had been dismissed as ‘banal, ‘disjointed’, and ‘empty’.
There were plenty of entertaining thrills and spills conjuring up nail-biting peril and jeopardy in the first movement. The Mahlerian second movement funeral march had some respite from the powerful grandeur on display in the sweet flute and trombone solos. It was a much prompter reading compared to some of the recordings I’ve listened to after the concert. Weill’s trademark melodies are evident in the final raucous movement.
Running to half an hour, Weill’s second symphony isn’t a long work, but given the stage move necessary to bring the piano and drum kit on for the final Rhapsody in Blue, the evening was feeling long. But the payoff was undoubtedly worth it. Hearing the music of New York, written in New York, here in New York was special. So too hearing the Marcus Roberts Trio with Philadelphia Orchestra.
Pianist Marcus Roberts treat the work’s piano sequences with far more improvisational zeal than the more familiar ‘straight’ recordings (you can get a sense of the material from this performance filmed in Geneva’s Victoria Hall https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzvwYs7jRLE.)
The familiar signpost orchestral sequences remain, but the energy is upped tenfold by the seeming flights of creative fancy the trio embarked upon. Excited applause rippled around the auditorium accordingly. The effect of this ‘directors cut’ was for competition to emerge between orchestra and trio. When the improvisations concluded and the orchestra kicked in, the well-known orchestral score sounded dull in comparison to the spectacle we had been treated to before. Was the kind of ‘Experiment in Modern Music’ Gershwin had in mind when the work was first premiered at the Aoliean Hall down the road a hundred years before?
The energy in the auditorium unexpectedly seemed to come with me as I made a ‘dash’ up the steep balcony steps for the exit. After I’d run for a subway train (conveniently located outside the concert hall), I sat down and immediately yawned. Heads turned.
“It was a long evening, wasn’t it?” said the man sat next to me. “It was. But I loved every single minute of it.” “The Weill was fantastic. I do think they packed in more than they needed to. And I’m sure the ensemble was off in the Petrushka.” He looked across the aisle to a couple who were listening to our exchange. “I thought so too,” said the woman. Then a man stood in the aisle, “No. It was the Weill that was the problem. I can’t stand Weill.”
I gently protested, jokingly telling them they were all wrong and they should take a long hard look at themselves and listen back to the broadcast when they got home. A surprisingly in-depth conversation ensued amongst the five of us. I missed my stop as a result.
“You know, you’d never have this kind of post-kind of conversation on the Tube in London”, I explained. “Oh we know,” replied the woman, “That’s what we do here.” It’s a lovely thing too.
Get a taste of the Philadelphia Orchestra sound in this recording of Stravinsky’s Petruskha from the early 1980s. For a taste of Yannick with the Philadelphia taking things at a rip-roaring pace, be sure to listen to the last movement of the Philadelphia’s 2023 recording of Rachamaninov’s Second Symphony.
This post is also published on Arcana FM.