BWW Reviews: The Philadelphia Orchestra With Choral Beethoven and Muhly
The Philadelphia Orchestra's regular season under maestro Yannick Nezet-Seguin began with its Beethoven's Ninth program running from September 26-28 at Verizon Hall. Now that the Orchestra has been freed of those constraints that forced it, for a short time, to have everything sound more like Verdi than like the Philadelphia Orchestra, it's still, alas, true that in 113 years, the Philadelphia Orchestra has yet to completely master Beethoven... if in fact anyone has done so. But the Orchestra is far closer, it seems, than it had been to that task in quite some time.
The first half of the program featured The Combined Westminster Choir and Westminster Symphonic Choir performing Beethoven's two shorter vocal pieces, "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" (Meerestille und gluckliche Fahrt), Op. 112, set to two poems by Goethe, followed by the premiere of the orchestrated version of "Bright Mass with Canons" by contemporary American composer Nico Muhly, with a smaller group of Westminster choristers.
While the Beethoven was steadfastly unexceptionable, though not transcendent, the Muhly had the virtue of novelty, as well as the virtue of the Westminster choirs. One of a good many pieces of various sorts by the prolific Mr. Muhly, it is also one of his finer ones. An Anglican, rather than Roman, mass setting, its Kyrie involved some particularly lovely brass and percussion at the opening, with chimes filling in admirably and lyrically for cathedral bells. Its Gloria featured echoing women's vocals, some splendid, light moments of percussion, and a moving woodwind line. The Sanctus featured the full Orchestra in all of its richness moving into a rapid women's vocal line against a slower men's vocal line, which fused into an almost-floating vocal piece by the time of the Benedictus. The Agnus Dei featured both vocal and orchestral parts of such ethereal lightness that they might well have floated off if not grounded by the bass and cello sections. This is a Contemporary Stage-performance mass well worth hearing a second time.
The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, with the Orchestra accompanied by the Westminster choirs and a fine selection of vocal soloists, Twyla Robinson filling in for scheduled soprano Christine Brewer. Although Robinson has some Mahler under her belt, she may have been the least "Germanic" of the vocalists - when tenor Christian Eisner began singing, the only first impression a listener could have was "This man sings Wagner." Mezzo Mihoko Fujimara also made an impression upon the audience, but the most powerful performer was currently-popular (and deservedly so) bass-baritone Shenyang.
Each of the individual movements of the Ninth was a fine performance, without exception; the only difficulty was the failure of all of the movements to mesh completely as a unity. That difficulty is a shame particularly because in each one of them, the listener has the urge to crow, "yes, this is what Beethoven sounds like." In the first movement, the Philly strings poured hearts, souls, sweat and rosin into its exposition; the second, the scherzo that made NBC news famous in the 1960's, had woodwinds that could remind you of everything you've ever loved about music, and timpani that make orchestral percussion a thing of wonder. As for the fourth, the choral movement, it can only be noted that Yannick is mesmerizing when conducting multiple groups - here the Orchestra, the Westminster choirs, the soloists - at once. There were moments when time seemed completely suspended as everything came together under Yannick's baton. If only the entire piece had come together as everything did here. Nonetheless, the performance was creditable and, indeed, far better than most performances of it will ever be (although the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia provided a fine performance of it back in April).
For information about the season, visit the Orchestra's web page at philorch.org.
Photo Credits: Chris Lee, Johannes Ifkovits