NEW YORK, NY.-
After being closed for 572 days because of the pandemic, Carnegie Hall, the countrys preeminent concert space, opened its season on Wednesday. It took only a simple greeting from the stage welcome back, spoken by Clive Gillinson, the halls executive and artistic director for the audience to burst into sustained cheers.
On paper, the Philadelphia Orchestras program including favorites like Bernsteins joyous overture to Candide and staples like Beethovens Fifth Symphony seemed tilted toward an opening nights traditional purpose as a crowd-pleasing fundraising gala. Yet both the choice of works and the vibrant music-making went deeper into questions of classical musics relevance and renewal than I had expected.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the orchestras music director, began by leading a performance of Valerie Colemans Seven OClock Shout, a work that the Philadelphians premiered online in May. This five-minute score has become the orchestras unofficial anthem for this difficult period.
It opens with cautious trumpet fanfares that activate tremulous strings. The music goes through passages of jittery riffs, burnished string chords, elegiac quietude and eruptive restlessness complete with actual shouts and claps from the players. The piece at times has a Copland-esque glow, but Coleman adds tart harmonic tweaks and assertive syncopations that continually surprise.
The brilliant pianist Yuja Wang was the soloist for Shostakovichs Piano Concerto No. 2, a work from 1957 considered one of this composers lighter, wittier scores. But from the start, this performance especially Wangs commanding, colorful playing seemed determined to look below the bustling surface for hints of the bitterly satirical Shostakovich.
As the orchestra played the chortling opening theme, alive with woodwinds, Wang almost sneaked into the fray with a subtly lyrical rendering of the pianos quizzical lines. Then, taking charge, she dispatched bursts of brittle chords, tossed off creepy-crawly runs and kept bringing out both the sweetly melodic and industriously steely elements of the three-movement work.
Then Nézet-Séguin, who in his other role as music director of the Metropolitan Opera is currently leading performances of Terence Blanchards Fire Shut Up in My Bones, turned to the Candide overture and may have tried too hard to tease out jagged edges and multilayered complexities in Bernsteins sparkling, impish music.
He then spoke to the audience about how the disruptions of the pandemic shook our collective sense of where we are, where we are going, and explained the pairing of the final two works on the program: Iman Habibis short Jeder Baum spricht (Every Tree Speaks) and Beethovens Fifth. The Habibi score, written in dialogue with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, was premiered in Philadelphia on March 12, 2020, to an empty hall, just after pandemic closures began.
Habibi imagines how Beethoven, a nature lover, might respond to todays climate crisis. On Wednesday, the compelling piece came across like a series of frustrated attempts at cohesion and peace, with fitful starts, hazy chords and driving yet irregular rhythmic figures. Finally, there is a sense, however uneasy, of affirmation and brassy richness.
Without a pause, Nézet-Séguin dove into the Beethoven. And if you think this classic work has to sound heroic and monumental, this performance was not for you. Here was an impetuous, in-the-moment account. Tempos shifted constantly. Some passages raced forward breathlessly, only to segue to episodes in which Nézet-Séguin drew out lyrical inner voices you seldom hear so prominently. It was exciting and unpredictable. Beethoven felt like he was responding to Habibi, as much as vice versa.
The Philadelphians had planned to present a complete survey of the symphonies at Carnegie last season, as part of the celebrations of Beethovens 250th birthday. That cycle will now take place in five programs over the coming months, with most of these totemic works preceded by shorter new pieces. (Coming to Carnegie no fewer than seven times in all, the orchestra also plays more Coleman in February, alongside Barber and Florence Price, and Beethovens Missa Solemnis in April.)
If the opening-night pairing and performances were indicative, this series will be a stimulating conversation between classical musics storied past and the tumultuous present.
Other Beethoven symphony programs on Oct. 20, Nov. 9, Dec. 7 and Jan. 11 at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan; carnegiehall.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times