A Concert Of Beethoven And Sermons, And Both Rise To Their Message

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. (Photo by Chris Kendig)

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Orchestra navigated a narrow path between reaffirming its pre-pandemic identity and the new social order in ways that weren’t initially promising: “Beethoven Symphonies and a Sermon” was the title of the Nov. 5 program at the Kimmel Center, and even on a Sundays, I’m in no mood for preaching in these contentious times. Yet once past that title, the concert turned out to be a solid way forward.

The “Sermon” section of the concert was devised by the charismatic bass-baritone Davóne Tines and titled as such with its readings by African American authors James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou as respective preludes to three vocal works: “Shake the Heaven” from John Adams’ El Niño, “Vigil” by Tines and Igee Dieudonné, and ending with “You Want the Truth, but You Don’t Want to Know” from the Anthony Davis opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.

In concert, readings and music — even ones that so frankly articulate the inner trauma of racism — can miss their target if not curated thoughtfully. The key advantage here was that the assemblage was done by the performer. The sequence of words and music not only worked but flowed. My biggest misgiving was the frenetic, high-velocity Adams, a largely fortissimo piece with no typical beginning or end. But the dramatic contrast created by the music came off like an unheralded, rage-fueled earthquake. The hymn-like “Vigil” was like the slow movement of a concerto.

The Malcolm X scene, sung when the title character is being interrogated by police, gives a compelling inner landscape in which Malcolm knows whatever he says won’t be heard. The vocal lines are more dramatic than singable, but Tines, who can stretch his rich tone into a light head voice, gave the piece its full due. More notable was the instrumental writing that ricocheted around the orchestra with highly original gestures and chord voicing. I didn’t remember this quality at all from the opera’s 1992 recording. It’s there, upon revisiting, but not projected nearly as vividly as in the Philadelphia Orchestra performance. That’s where the orchestra’s cognitive growth in recent years was evident: The professionalism of the past has tended to airbrush new music, which is nice but not enough. Now, the music gains stature and dignity from a stronger understanding and commitment to its content. What other revelations might be in store for the work’s 2023 Metropolitan Opera debut?

Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in a Beethoven symphony.

On the Beethoven front, the news couldn’t be better. In contrast to the somewhat rusty Beethoven Symphony No. 3 the New York Philharmonic played for Michael Tilson Thomas’ Nov. 4 comeback at Lincoln Center, the composer’s Second and Eighth Symphonies had far more style, personality, and drive (but weren’t driven) in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s next-day Kimmel Center concert. The Philadelphians had stayed relatively active during lockdown, recording digital concerts at the semi-outdoor Mann Center and later at Kimmel, often under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. And it shows.

On his side, Nézet-Séguin’s lockdown history includes conducting a streamed Beethoven cycle with Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal over the summer of 2020 that was satisfyingly solid, and then, in summer of 2021 at Baden-Baden, a more evolved Beethoven cycle with Chamber Orchestra of Europe that was also streamed and will be released by Deutsche Grammophon. Those performances were historically informed with minimal string vibrato, period trumpets, and tempos that used the composer’s fast metronome markings as a close point of reference.

Of course, the famous Philadelphia sound is the polar opposite of that, and Nézet-Séguin worked with it in some interesting ways. Timpanist Don Liuzzi used lean, military-style sticks heard in period groups. And Nézet-Séguin’s fast tempos conveyed the music’s restless temperament. My only reservation: In the first movement of the Symphony No. 8, a tempo that would be natural for Chamber Orchestra of Europe didn’t allow the Philadelphia Orchestra to maintain clarity. Elsewhere in the symphony, Nézet-Séguin’s special talent for building tension over a long symphonic arc was put to great use, and the Philadelphia sound gave such arcs extra weight and momentum. The third movement’s horn duet by principal Jennifer Montone and orchestra newcomer Christopher Dwyer was both tidy and hearty, which sums up the best-of-all-worlds quality of the overall performance.

Placing the Beethoven Second on the second half was taking a chance, especially since Nézet-Séguin’s Montreal performance didn’t disprove the symphony’s reputation for milking too much mileage out of substandard ideas. Conducting from memory, Nézet-Séguin naturally delivered the big moments but made the symphony seem unusually cogent by giving equal importance to all symphonic elements, right down to humble transitional passages that, in this performance, transcended the purely functional role to which they’re usually relegated. Every second is important, Nézet-Séguin seemed to say. I just hope this experience doesn’t spoil me for all less-enlightened future performances.