An Ineffable Tone Poem Captures How Wildfire Consumed Small Town

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra on Oct. 15, 2021, at the Kimmel Center. (Photo by Pete Cecchia)

PHILADELPHIA — With symphony orchestras striving to be inclusive in what seems like every possible way, concerts are becoming an increasingly broad aesthetic platform in which musicians and audiences parse music that may be perfectly agreeable but not what they’re used to. The hybrid jazz of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera is a bold example, but more quiet and elusive was a Robin Holcomb piece titled Paradise that might seem to fall in line with a Richard Strauss tone poem but was worlds away.

The Oct. 15 Philadelphia Orchestra concert in its Kimmel Center home also had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and, in a genuine treat, soprano Pretty Yende singing four Richard Strauss songs. Holcomb’s 10-minute piece was the fascinating outlier, a work by an artist whose varied background includes the avant-garde downtown New York scene of the 1980s and folk-based ballads that are so intelligent they’re recorded on the Nonesuch label. (Sample lyric: “Welcome to the start of ever after.”) She has also written instrumental pieces that don’t try to fit into any category, but just are.

Robin Holcomb (Photo by Peter Gannushkin)

In this context, Paradise refers to a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills that was devoured by wildfire in 2018. The excellent program notes discuss various descriptive effects, such as high wind instruments representing the very tops of the trees that the fire didn’t quite reach. But these aren’t effects that present themselves with the extroversion of Strauss. In his pre-performance comments, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin talked about a chorale embedded in the piece, which is in keeping with Holcomb’s fascination with Americana hymns and Civil War songs. Yet there wasn’t the kind of through line that can be created with such composition devices. Holcomb has described herself as an episodic composer, which often feels like a point of veracity: The outside world that she was looking at in this orchestral work is a random place that aesthetic unity could only falsify.

What emerged was a series of sonic pictures that functioned like a film score, but as a soundtrack to Holcomb’s inner dialogue that we don’t actually visualize but feel as a residual effect. A lot of motifs draw in the ear but aren’t seductive like traditional melodies. The music is inviting but doesn’t lead you by the hand. And when your ear gets the hang of what is going on, the music changes.

Vivid episodes morph into each other with contrasting sound palettes — a technique that has earned her the reputation for being a bit of a kitchen-sink composer using every available instrument. Descriptive qualities are there but not so explicit as to straight-jacket the ear. The music is more like someone sharing their night dreams and letting listeners supply their own guide to interpretation. The result is a piece that doesn’t command foreground attention but isn’t about to be a mere musical backdrop. It’s something else.

If I seem unsure about the piece’s staying power, well, that evaluation comes with repeated exposure. Of one thing I am sure: The ending eloquently conveyed the sense of stunned nothingness at the fire’s end. The score has expansive oboe and lower string writing with faint rustles of life from the bassoon. I can’t say why it had such an impact. But it did. In a classical music world that’s traditionally anchored in long-ago music, where programs are etched in stone years in advance, the ambiguity of the Holcomb experience seems strangely healthy.

Speaking of advanced planning, this concert was originally announced to include the Mahler Symphony No. 4. Soprano Yende, who was to sing in the Mahler, still appeared on the concert’s first half, starting with Strauss’ popular “Morgen!” In the song’s emotional pivot — the line “Speechless we shall gaze into each other’s eyes” — Yende created a hard-to-define color that conveyed the awe behind the line in ways I haven’t heard from any of the great sopranos who have come before her in this repertoire. All of that, plus concertmaster David Kim’s radiant violin solo.

Soprano Pretty Yende performing with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Cecchia)

Some of Strauss’ most ambitious and sophisticated songs are in his infrequently heard Brentano collection, Op. 68, from 1918 that have a kinship to his opera Ariadne auf Naxos: Vocal demands seem to ask for a soprano who can sing both of the very different roles of Ariadne and Zerbinetta. Yende is in a vocal sweet spot in her career where coloratura and lyric singing are very much in reach. The three songs — “Als mir dein Lied erklang,” “Amor,” “An die Nacht” — did test her limits, though one could see that an important Strauss soprano has arrived.

Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, as played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, sounded nothing like Nézet-Séguin’s reading earlier this year in Baden Baden with Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This is one Beethoven symphony that justifiably taps into the Philadelphia Orchestra’s lush sound. But the performance behaved similarly. Nézet-Séguin is often keen on going back to basics in re-examining the letter of any given score, and with this one, the fermatas and phrase endings didn’t linger. Pastoral atmosphere was there, but so was Beethovenian logic. Moments of repose still had a healthy pulse. The third-movement peasant dance was downright raucous.

Overall, the symphony felt like a progression from homogeneous textures to a score packed with individual instrumental voices, and quite joyful ones. And audible ones. The Verizon Hall acoustics in the Kimmel Center have been improved incrementally over the years to the point where some locations — the hall is still spotty — have sound that glows.