Flair Meets Substance As A Maestro In Purple Leads Carnegie Opener

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Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s 2022-23 season opening-night concert on Sept. 29. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Most opening-night concert programs, their audiences studded with ladies in eye-catching designer dresses, are foreshortened and consist of selections akin to Rosenkavalier waltzes and a suite from West Side Story. Then the beautiful patrons glide off to an elegant dinner.  

But the meaty program Sept. 29 at Carnegie Hall, though not overly demanding of the listener, was a full-length, straight-up concert, with no intermission. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 11th music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led the ensemble in works of Ravel, Liszt, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Dvořák. His imaginative concept paid off.

Nézet-Séguin, snazzy in a purple velvet jacket matching stage rear boxes of purple and scarlet flowers, knew what he was doing musically, and put that across. One got the feeling he had everything closely mapped out; he controlled all the voicing. The audience looked comfortable listening as the orchestra settled into its renowned rich sound in each section, each singled out for bows at the end.  

The first piece, Ravel’s La valse, is sometimes conducted like, well, a waltz. In fact, it has been called “the apotheosis of the waltz.” But more accurately, because of its ominous, vaguely sickening rhythms, it’s been described as the “destruction of the world of the waltz,” a caricature of the seductive Viennese dance. Nézet-Séguin’s sharp-edged reading conveyed its incipient haunting horror.

Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat is a glorious mess. Nézet-Séguin paid unusual attention to the orchestra here, bringing out the drama of the scoring, which is generally obliterated by the fiery piano part and attendant antics.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra with soloist Daniil Trifonov in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is a favorite soloist on the stage today, as well as in recordings, and his playing — or keyboard plowing — was strong and thoughtful, as expected. In July, however, Yuja Wang, stepping in at the last moment with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, flamboyantly ripped the guts out of the same piece and made its gentle moments whisper, drawing a wild reception from the audience, and raising the bar for future wild receptions.

Trifonov’s solo encore, Myra Hess’ arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring,” wafted serenity through the hall like a calming breath.

The Philadelphia’s composer-in-residence is Gabriela Lena Frank, of Peruvian-Lithuanian descent. Her brief “Chasqui” (Incan messengers) from Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, is from 2001 but was arranged for large string orchestra in 2003. With six upbeat, sparkling mini-movements, it is easy listening, a useful addition to the repertoire, and likely to remain in it.

Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians ended their concert with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G major could be considered the sweetest, most lovely of his symphonies, its uplifting tunes inviting you to listen with a smile. For the composer, though, the godsend was his Ninth. By the time of his Eighth, Dvořák was about written out on loveliness. (His Stabat Mater, snarkily put down by one accompanying player as “10 slow movements,” is hard to remember, let alone hum, even if you’ve performed it.)

But then Dvořák headed off to America to teach us how to find and expand our own national musical sound. In the process, he composed a mighty, beloved symphony of his own, built on native American and African-American motifs, in effect practicing what he preached.

The Eighth, with its sturdy sonorities and cheerful dotted melodies, was a canny choice to complete the program, understood and neatly performed, sending the audience off in a figurative warm bath of uplift and joy.